, Volume 28, Issue 10, pp 1961-1974

Landscape structure mediates the effects of a stressor on field vole populations

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Abstract

Spatio-temporal landscape heterogeneity has rarely been considered in population-level impact assessments. Here we test whether landscape heterogeneity is important by examining the case of a pesticide applied seasonally to orchards which may affect non-target vole populations, using a validated ecologically realistic and spatially explicit agent-based model. Voles thrive in unmanaged grasslands and untreated orchards but are particularly exposed to applied pesticide treatments during dispersal between optimal habitats. We therefore hypothesised that vole populations do better (1) in landscapes containing more grassland and (2) where areas of grassland are closer to orchards, but (3) do worse if larger areas of orchards are treated with pesticide. To test these hyposeses we made appropriate manipulations to a model landscape occupied by field voles. Pesticide application reduced model population sizes in all three experiments, but populations subsequently wholly or partly recovered. Population depressions were, as predicted, lower in landscapes containing more unmanaged grassland, in landscapes with reduced distance between grassland and orchards, and in landscapes with fewer treated orchards. Population recovery followed a similar pattern except for an unexpected improvement in recovery when the area of treated orchards was increased. Outside the period of pesticide application, orchards increase landscape connectivity and facilitate vole dispersal and so speed population recovery. Overall our results show that accurate prediction of population impact cannot be achieved without taking account of landscape structure. The specifics of landscape structure and habitat connectivity are likely always important in mediating the effects of stressors.