Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 26, Issue 14, pp 3465–3479 | Cite as

Landscape connectivity and the role of small habitat patches as stepping stones: an assessment of the grassland biome in South America

  • Lorena P. Herrera
  • Malena C. Sabatino
  • Florencia R. Jaimes
  • Santiago Saura
Original Paper


Connectivity losses lead to a reduction of the amount of habitat resources that can be reached and used by species, and hence to a decline in the ranges and abundance of multiple taxa. Despite the recognized important role of small habitat patches for many species inhabiting fragmented landscapes, their potential contribution as stepping stones for maintaining overall landscape connectivity has received less attention. Using connectivity metrics based on a graph-theoretic approach we (i) quantified the connectivity of grassland patches in a sector of the Pampa region in Argentina, using a range of dispersal distances (from 100 to 10,000 m) representative of the scale of dispersal of different species; (ii) identified the most relevant patches for maintaining overall connectivity; and (iii) studied the importance of small patches (defined for different area thresholds of 5, 20, and 50 ha) as connectivity providers in the landscape. Although grassland patches were in general poorly connected at all distances, some of them were critical for overall connectivity and were found to play different crucial roles in the patch network. The location of small patches in the grassland network allowed them to function as stepping stones, yielding significant connectivity gains for species that move large distances (>5000 m) for the three area thresholds considered. Thus, under the spatial pattern of the studied landscape, species that move long distances would benefit from stepping stones, while less mobile organisms would benefit from, and mostly rely on the largest patches. We recommend that future management activities should (i) aim at preserving the grassland patches with the highest potential as stepping stones to promote landscape-level connectivity; and (ii) pay more attention to the conservation of key small patches, particularly given that usually they are those more vulnerable to land clearing for agriculture.


Threatened ecosystems Conservation planning Pampa region Habitat patch networks 



Financial support was provided by Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET). We thank Juan Pablo Issach for his contributions for improving this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Grupo de Estudios de Agroecosistemas y Paisajes Rurales (GEAP), Facultad de Ciencias AgrariasUniversidad Nacional de Mar del PlataBalcarceArgentina
  2. 2.Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET)Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria, EEA INTABalcarceArgentina
  4. 4.Facultad de Ciencias AgrariasUniversidad Nacional de Mar del PlataBalcarceArgentina
  5. 5.Directorate D: Sustainable ResourcesEuropean Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)IspraItaly

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