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Critical thresholds associated with habitat loss: a review of the concepts, evidence, and applications


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A major conservation concern is whether population size and other ecological variables change linearly with habitat loss, or whether they suddenly decline more rapidly below a “critical threshold” level of habitat. The most commonly discussed explanation for critical threshold responses to habitat loss focus on habitat configuration. As habitat loss progresses, the remaining habitat is increasingly fragmented or the fragments are increasingly isolated, which may compound the effects of habitat loss. In this review we also explore other possible explanations for apparently nonlinear relationships between habitat loss and ecological responses, including Allee effects and time lags, and point out that some ecological variables will inherently respond nonlinearly to habitat loss even in the absence of compounding factors. In the literature, both linear and nonlinear ecological responses to habitat loss are evident among simulation and empirical studies, although the presence and value of critical thresholds is influenced by characteristics of the species (e.g. dispersal, reproduction, area/edge sensitivity) and landscape (e.g. fragmentation, matrix quality, rate of change). With enough empirical support, such trends could be useful for making important predictions about species' responses to habitat loss, to guide future research on the underlying causes of critical thresholds, and to make better informed management decisions. Some have seen critical thresholds as a means of identifying conservation targets for habitat retention. We argue that in many cases this may be misguided, and that the meaning (and utility) of a critical threshold must be interpreted carefully and in relation to the response variable and management goal. Despite recent interest in critical threshold responses to habitat loss, most studies have not used any formal statistical methods to identify their presence or value. Methods that have been used include model comparisons using Akaike information criterion (AIC) or t-tests, and significance testing for changes in slope or for polynomial effects. The judicious use of statistics to help determine the shape of ecological relationships would permit greater objectivity and more comparability among studies.