U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service





Date of this Version



Barela, I., L.M. Burger, J. Taylor, K.O. Evans, R. Ogawa, L. McClintic, and G. Wong. 2020. Relationships between survival and habitat suitability of semi-aquatic mammals. Ecology and Evolution 10(11):4867-4875. doi: 10.1002/ece3.6239


Spatial distribution and habitat selection are integral to the study of animal ecology. Habitat selection may optimize the fitness of individuals. Hutchinsonian niche theory posits the fundamental niche of species would support the persistence or growth of populations. Although niche-based species distribution models (SDMs) and habitat suitability models (HSMs) such as maximum entropy (Maxent) have demonstrated fair to excellent predictive power, few studies have linked the prediction of HSMs to demographic rates. We aimed to test the prediction of Hutchinsonian niche theory that habitat suitability (i.e., likelihood of occurrence) would be positively related to survival of American beaver (Castor canadensis), a North American semi-aquatic, herbivorous, habitat generalist. We also tested the prediction of ideal free distribution that animal fitness, or its surrogate, is independent of habitat suitability at the equilibrium. We estimated beaver monthly survival probability using the Barker model and radio telemetry data collected in northern Alabama, United States from January 2011 to April 2012. A habitat suitability map was generated with Maxent for the entire study site using landscape variables derived from the 2011 National Land Cover Database (30-m resolution). We found an inverse relationship between habitat suitability index and beaver survival, contradicting the predictions of niche theory and ideal free distribution. Furthermore, four landscape variables selected by American beaver did not predict survival. The beaver population on our study site has been established for 20 or more years and, subsequently, may be approaching or have reached the carrying capacity. Maxent-predicted increases in habitat use and subsequent intraspecific competition may have reduced beaver survival. Habitat suitability-fitness relationships may be complex and, in part, contingent upon local animal abundance. Future studies of mechanistic SDMs incorporating local abundance and demographic rates are needed.