Habitat destruction favours the mediocre

World-first, global research led by La Trobe University has found that threats such as habitat destruction are having a major impact on animal species, with potentially catastrophic environmental effects.

Associate Professor Heloise Gibb from La Trobe’s School of Life Sciences led a team of seventeen researchers from around the world to test how habitat loss affects ants. The research was published in the journal Ecography.

“How well a species copes with threats like habitat disturbance depends on characteristics such as how big it is and what it eats,” Professor Gibb said.

“What our research has found is that human disturbance to ecosystems such as changing a forest to farmland, eradicates the largest and the smallest ant species, leaving ants more uniform in size.

“The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode – wreaking environmental havoc.”

Ants were collected from 333 locations around the world and body size of more than 2,000 species was measured.

Professor Gibb said ants were studied because they are so prolific and important to the ecosystem, but that the same principle of habitat destruction at the extreme of species size could be applied to other animals.

“Our research has shown that species at the ‘extreme’ suffer the most when their habitat is disturbed,” Professor Gibb said.

“This could be applied to other animals, so habitat destruction might lead to you losing tigers at one end of the scale and tiny microbats at the other.”

Professor Gibb said the solution lies in better land management.

“Whether natural habitats have been disturbed through deforestation, farming, mining or other human interventions, solutions can be found to lessen the ecological impacts,” Professor Gibb said.

“For example, farmers could keep more trees on their farmland, plants could be introduced to disused mines and more attention could be given to the understorey when cutting down trees.”

Professor Gibb explained the next steps of the study.

“Now we know that human disturbances to ecosystems remove the extreme species, the next step is to find out what sorts of disturbances have the biggest effects and how we might minimise their impacts to better conserve species of all sizes.”

Read the paper in the journal Ecography.

Contact details:
Associate Professor Heloise Gibb
Mobile: 0432536151
Email: h.gibb@latrobe.edu.au

Media contact: Claire Bowers – c.bowers@latrobe.edu.au - 9479 2315 / 0437279903