New research makes migrant species a conservation priority

Apr 14, 2014 by Stephen D'arcy

Global conservation could be bolstered by new research that maps migratory species' impacts on eco-systems, food web dynamics and community processes.

Dr Bethany Hoye, research fellow at Deakin University's Centre for Integrative Ecology says a 'networked approach' investigating community dynamics and eco-system functioning can assist develop effective conservation measures.

"To develop an effective strategy to conserve or support a species, we need to understand the function it plays within the ecosystem," Dr Hoye says.

The research, published by Science, details the significant impacts have on food web dynamics, community processes and eco-system functions.

"Animal migration research has until now focussed on how, when, from where and why animals migrate. But it's increasingly understood that migration has broader ecological effects that appear unrelated at first glance," Dr Hoye says.

"By transporting energy, nutrients and other organisms as well as eating and being eaten, migratory animals can substantially alter the dynamics of resident communities they visit.

"For example, when salmon migrate to their natal waterways in northern America they transfer masses of nutrients from the ocean to freshwater ecosystems and on into the surrounding terrestrial habitats. The addition of these marine resources can even change the structure of the plant communities surrounding the stream, favouring trees rather than shrubs."

"Migrating desert locusts consume their own weight every day. It's claimed that one swarm alone in the horn of Africa destroyed enough vegetation on a daily basis to feed 400,000 people for an entire year," she says.

Dr Hoye says wildebeest herds of up to 1 million, migrate across the Serengeti each year in pursuit of food and water.

"Resident lions coincide their reproduction with the migration period, ensuring there's sufficient food for their cubs. Any significant decline in wildebeest migration will impact the lions."

Dr Hoye and her co-author Dr Silke Bauer, from Netherlands Institute of Ecology, say their research could help bolster initiatives.

"Global and local programs can be maximised if conservationists jointly consider resident animal populations and migrants – given migrants' vital contributions to world ecosystems.

"Protecting migrant species should be made a priority as conservationists, ecologists and researchers start to collaborate more closely," Dr Hoye says.

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