Habitat restoration efforts have begun to take place across the globe as the need to conserve environments and their endemic species becomes increasingly clear, and increasingly dire. Efforts to restore habitats are now commonplace, occurring in diverse habitats from the rainforests and grasslands to local waterways. However, restoring habitats has not correlated with the return of native species in many cases, leaving researchers wondering how to increase the likelihood that a once-present species will return to the area once the habitat has been restored. Researchers at the University of California in the US and the University of Melbourne in Australia have collaborated to develop guidelines for habitat restoration informed by animal behavior, with the goal to increase the return of native species (Hale et. al, 2020).
The primary goal of habitat restoration is to create environments capable of self-sustaining populations of target species. Unfortunately, in many cases, this does not occur. Restoration outcomes vary greatly, in some cases with great success, in others with the target species failing to return at all, and in some cases with target species returning to the area, but being unsuccessful due to unmet habitat requirements. Researchers have proposed a decision tree to follow when encountering these various scenarios, with aims for action and amelioration of any shortcomings which may be effecting the success of the restoration efforts. According to this study, the need to consider animal behavior when implementing habitat restoration has been discussed since the early 2000s, but has not been thoroughly quantified or studied on a large scale.
The first step proposed in ensuring animals colonize restored sites lies in identifying the specific sensory cues used by target species to select their habitat. Restored sites must provide food, shelter, and other species-specific requirements, but must also possess the necessary community to support the target species. Understanding the importance of these factors, and how strongly they affect habitat choice will help to ensure that the restoration of degraded habitats shows greater success in bringing back native species.
In exemplifying this point, researchers pointed to the habitat restoration efforts of the Western burrowing owl. This species did not respond to initial habitat restoration efforts which only dealt with vegetation management. However, when conservationists
translocated populations of the California ground squirrel, the owls returned to the area. This is an example of community interaction being necessary for the successful restoration of a habitat- the burrowing of the squirrels provides an essential habitat for the owls. For more information on the efforts to conserve burrowing owls, readers can visit the Burrowing Owl Conservation website.
This study breaks restoration down into three broad-sweeping phases: planning, doing, and evaluating. During each of these phases, implementing knowledge of individual species behavior and reliance on community ecosystem structures will help to identify which habitat elements are required for a successful restoration project. Incorporating animal behavior based evidence is also suggested to be more cost-effective, as understanding the behavior behind habitat selection on the front end of restoration is cheaper than having to attempt to remedy any inadequacies in the future.
This study proposes that understanding how exactly restoration fails due to the lack of understanding of animal behavior compared to other failures such as disturbance, land use, and climate change is critical to more sustainable and more successful restoration efforts. The urgent need for habitat restoration is well-recognized in the scientific community, but the failures of these efforts due to a lack of behavioral knowledge of the target species is less often discussed. As suggested, increasing this understanding will create more sustainable outcomes and increase the effectiveness of habitat restoration across the globe.
Hale, R., Blumstein, D. T., Mac Nally, R., & Swearer, S. E. (2020). Harnessing knowledge of animal behavior to improve habitat restoration outcomes. Ecosphere, 11(4).