Paper: Impacts of human-induced environmental change in wetlands on aquatic animals

Just had the first chapter of my PhD published in Biological Reviews. Stay tuned for some PR!

Many wetlands harbour highly diverse biological communities and provide extensive ecosystem services; however, these important ecological features are being altered, degraded and destroyed around the world. Despite a wealth of research on how animals respond to anthropogenic changes to natural wetlands and how they use created wetlands, we lack a broad synthesis of these data. While some altered wetlands may provide vital habitat, others could pose a considerable risk to wildlife. This risk will be heightened if such wetlands are ecological traps – preferred habitats that confer lower fitness than another available habitat. Wetlands functioning as ecological traps could decrease both local and regional population persistence, and ultimately lead to extinctions. Most studies have examined how animals respond to changes in environmental conditions by measuring responses at the community and population levels, but studying ecological traps requires information on fitness and habitat preferences. Our current lack of knowledge of individual-level responses may therefore limit our capacity to manage wetland ecosystems effectively since ecological traps require different management practices to mitigate potential consequences.

We conducted a global meta-analysis to characterise how animals respond to four key drivers of wetland alteration: agriculture, mining, restoration and urbanisation. Our overarching goal was to evaluate the ecological impacts of human alterations to wetland ecosystems, as well as identify current knowledge gaps that limit both the current understanding of these responses and effective wetland management. We extracted 1799 taxon-specific response ratios from 271 studies across 29 countries. Community- (e.g. richness) and population-level (e.g. density) measures within altered wetlands were largely comparable to those within reference wetlands. By contrast, individual fitness measures (e.g. survival) were often lower, highlighting the potential limitations of using only community- and population-level measures to assess habitat quality. Only four studies provided habitat-preference data, preventing investigation of the potential for altered wetlands to function as ecological traps. This is concerning because attempts to identify ecological traps may detect previously unidentified conservation risks. Although there was considerable variability amongst taxa, amphibians were typically the most sensitive taxon, and thus, may be a valuable bio-indicator of wetland quality. Despite suffering reduced survival and reproduction, measures such as time to and mass at metamorphosis were similar between altered and reference wetlands, suggesting that quantifying metamorphosis-related measures in isolation may not provide accurate information on habitat quality.

Our review provides the most detailed evaluation to date of the ecological impacts of human alterations to wetland ecosystems. We emphasise that the role of wetlands in human-altered ecosystems can be complex, as they may represent important habitat but also pose potential risks to animals. Reduced availability of natural wetlands is increasing the importance of altered wetlands for aquatic animals. Consequently, we need to define what represents habitat quality from the perspective of animals, and gain a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms of habitat selection and how these factors could be manipulated. Furthermore, strategies to enhance the quality of these wetlands should be implemented to maximise their conservation potential.

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Sievers, M., Hale, R., Parris, M. K. and Swearer, S. E. 2017. Impacts of human-induced environmental change in wetlands on aquatic animals. Biological Reviews 10.1111/brv.12358

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