Graph theory as a proxy for spatially explicit population models in conservation planning.
Spatially explicit population models (SEPMs) are often considered the best way to predict and manage species distributions in spatially heterogeneous landscapes. However, they are computationally intensive and require extensive knowledge of species' biology and behavior, limiting their application in many cases. An alternative to SEPMs is graph theory, which has minimal data requirements and efficient algorithms. Although only recently introduced to landscape ecology, graph theory is well suited to ecological applications concerned with connectivity or movement. This paper compares the performance of graph theory to a SEPM in selecting important habitat patches for Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) conservation. We use both models to identify habitat patches that act as population sources and persistent patches and also use graph theory to identify patches that act as stepping stones for dispersal. Correlations of patch rankings were very high between the two models. In addition, graph theory offers the ability to identify patches that are very important to habitat connectivity and thus long-term population persistence across the landscape. We show that graph theory makes very similar predictions in most cases and in other cases offers insight not available from the SEPM, and we conclude that graph theory is a suitable and possibly preferable alternative to SEPMs for species conservation in heterogeneous landscapes.
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