Ecosystem-level dynamics of soil-vegetation features, with implications for conserving a narrowly endemic reptile

Research paper by Matthew R. Dzialak, Dean J. Houchen, Seth M. Harju, James P. Mudd, John J. Wondzell, Stephen L. Webb, Nicholas P. Gould, Jennifer E. Hess, Jeffrey B. Winstead

Indexed on: 17 Apr '13Published on: 17 Apr '13Published in: Landscape Ecology


Narrow endemism presents challenges to species occurrence modeling particularly when the distribution of key local habitat features changes across space and time as a function of processes operating at larger scales. One need facing conservation in such settings is a better understanding of the biogeographic dynamics of the larger features that govern occurrence of critical local habitat. The Mescalero–Monahans shinnery sands region of western North America is a dynamic landscape where sand shinnery oak interacts with wind-driven sand to establish dune habitat. This ecosystem supports several narrowly endemic dune-dwelling species including the dunes sagebrush lizard. Using near-anniversary satellite and aerial imagery from 1986, 1998, and 2011, we integrated object-based image classification and statistical analysis to develop and validate a spatially explicit estimate of the sand shinnery oak ecosystem, including dynamics associated with its attrition and emergence, at high resolution throughout an 89,849-km2 study area encompassing the range of the dunes sagebrush lizard. The spatial estimate of the distribution and extent of the sand shinnery oak soil-vegetation association validated reasonably well (overall accuracy = 0.79; sensitivity = 0.49; specificity = 0.91) and showed that the association declined 10.3 % in extent during the 25-year assessment window. The presence of sand shinnery oak, patch size, and patch isolation were dynamic across space and time; a regression model showed that smaller, isolated patches on the periphery of the system were more likely to be lost over time whereas larger, less isolated, and centrally distributed patches were more likely to persist or expand. This study details broadly applicable methods to accurately delineate landforms throughout large extents, and offers mapping tools specific to issues surrounding Mescalero–Monahans shinnery sands endemics that are readily amenable to testing, refinement, and application in efforts to focus sustainable landscape management including conservation of endemic species.