Modelling space-use and habitat preference from wildlife telemetry data
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Management and conservation of populations of animals requires information on where they are, why they are there, and where else they could be. These objectives are typically approached by collecting data on the animals’ use of space, relating these to prevailing environmental conditions and employing these relations to predict usage at other geographical regions. Technical advances in wildlife telemetry have accomplished manifold increases in the amount and quality of available data, creating the need for a statistical framework that can use them to make population-level inferences for habitat preference and space-use. This has been slow-in-coming because wildlife telemetry data are, by definition, spatio-temporally autocorrelated, unbalanced, presence-only observations of behaviorally complex animals, responding to a multitude of cross-correlated environmental variables. I review the evolution of techniques for the analysis of space-use and habitat preference, from simple hypothesis tests to modern modeling techniques and outline the essential features of a framework that emerges naturally from these foundations. Within this framework, I discuss eight challenges, inherent in the spatial analysis of telemetry data and, for each, I propose solutions that can work in tandem. Specifically, I propose a logistic, mixed-effects approach that uses generalized additive transformations of the environmental covariates and is fitted to a response data-set comprising the telemetry and simulated observations, under a case-control design. I apply this framework to non-trivial case-studies using data from satellite-tagged grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) foraging off the east and west coast of Scotland, and northern gannets (Morus Bassanus) from Bass Rock. I find that sea bottom depth and sediment type explain little of the variation in gannet usage, but grey seals from different regions strongly prefer coarse sediment types, the ideal burrowing habitat of sandeels, their preferred prey. The results also suggest that prey aggregation within the water column might be as important as horizontal heterogeneity. More importantly, I conclude that, despite the complex behavior of the study species, flexible empirical models can capture the environmental relationships that shape population distributions.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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