Wind turbines affect behavior of desert tortoise predators

May 4, 2017 by Jennifer Lavista, UC Davis
A radio-tracked desert tortoise basks in the sun next to wind turbines near Palm Springs. Credit: Mickey Agha/UC Davis

How a wind energy facility is designed can influence the behavior of animal predators and their prey, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists placed motion-activated cameras facing the entrances of 46 active desert tortoise burrows in a wind energy facility near Palm Springs, California. Video recordings showed that visits to burrows from five predators—bobcats, gray foxes, coyotes, black bears and western spotted skunks—increased closer to dirt roads, and decreased closer to wind turbines.

Do dirt roads help wildlife?

Habitat disturbance caused by wind energy facilities creates unique challenges and opportunities for wildlife. Although fragmented landscapes may make some large carnivores—like cougars and bears—more vulnerable to population decline, some small- to medium-sized animals—like coyotes and foxes—expand their habitat to include areas that have been changed by humans.

"These findings could be helpful in assisting managers to design future wind energy facilities with species in mind," said lead author Mickey Agha, a UC Davis graduate student studying ecology with Professor Brian Todd. "There may be benefits to adding space between turbines and increasing the number of dirt roads, to potentially provide habitat for sensitive terrestrial wildlife."

Credit: UC Davis

Results suggest that infrastructure associated with wind energy facilities, such as dirt roads or culverts, may create movement corridors through disturbed habitat that some animals prefer. Dirt roads may act as funnels for predators because they are potential corridors through the wind energy facility. Earlier research at the study site reported that tortoise burrows were more likely to be closer to roads than random points. Tortoises can move more easily on dirt roads and desert washes than on highly vegetated landscapes.

Burrow visits may be for smaller prey

"There is little information on predator–prey interactions in wind landscapes in North America, and this study provides a foundation for learning more," said Jeffrey Lovich, USGS scientist and co-author of the study. "Further investigation of causes that underlie and turbine effects, such as ground vibrations, sound emission and traffic volume could help provide a better understanding of wildlife responses to development."

The cameras did not record any predation on adult desert tortoises close to burrows. This suggests that the predators observed in the study do not often actively prey upon adult desert tortoises, but visit the sites looking for smaller prey that frequently live in desert burrows.

Credit: UC Davis

Explore further: Habitat is a crucial factor in survivability of released tortoises

More information: Mickey Agha et al. Mammalian mesocarnivore visitation at tortoise burrows in a wind farm, The Journal of Wildlife Management (2017). DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.21262

Related Stories

Wind turbines hazardous to birds, bats

November 13, 2007

Wind energy, a fast-growing sector of the U.S. energy industry, is taking a toll on nocturnal wildlife caught in the turbines, officials said.

Humans unknowing midwives for pregnant moose

October 9, 2007

When it’s time for moose to give birth in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they head to where it is safest from predators – namely closer to people, according to a new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Desert tortoise released on Marine Corps base

October 2, 2015

Researchers have released a desert tortoise raised on a Marine Corps base as part of efforts aimed at reinvigorating the threatened population in the western Mojave Desert.

Recommended for you

Predators learn to identify prey from other species

March 21, 2018

Wolves purportedly raised Romulus and Remus, who went on to rule Rome. Is there good scientific evidence for learning across species? Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama wanted to know ...

Insects could help us find new yeasts for big business

March 21, 2018

Yeasts are tiny fungi - but they play key roles in producing everything from beer and cheese to industrial chemicals and biofuels. And now scientists are proposing a new approach that could help these industries find new ...

Promiscuity may have accelerated animal domestication

March 21, 2018

Domestication of wild animals may have accelerated as promiscuity increased among the high density populations drawn to life near humans, according to a new paper by University of Liverpool researchers.

Monkeys use tools to crack nuts, shuck oysters

March 21, 2018

Wild macaque monkeys have learned to use tools to crack open nuts and even shuck oysters, researchers said Wednesday, identifying a rare skill-set long thought to be the exclusive party trick of humans and chimps.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.