Habitat heterogeneity influences connectivity in a spatially structured pest population.
Patterns of connectivity influence pest population system dynamics, and it is essential to consider connectivity when planning effective management strategies. Traditional connectivity models often consider populations embedded in a matrix of unsuitable habitat. This approach is unlikely to be applicable to those pest species that can utilize most of the landscape in which they live. There is therefore a need for a simple and flexible tool to assess connectivity in such systems. In this study, we developed a new model in which contiguous resource patches that differ in quality, and landscape elements that impede dispersal, impact on connectivity within a population system. The model was applied to a wild rabbit population system, a well-studied pest species in Australia. An independent population genetic data set was used to validate the model. There was a highly significant association between pairwise population connectivity and the genetic data (Mantel test, r=-0.502, P=0.002). As predicted, two populations that showed very low connectivity were strongly isolated genetically. These sites appeared to be substantially isolated because of forests, which acted to impede rabbit dispersal. When these sites were excluded from analysis, connectivity indices again explained the pattern of genetic data (Mantel test, r=-0.46, P=0.037). This showed that both spatial variation in resource quality and forests influenced connectivity in this system. Sensitivity analyses confirmed that the distribution and extent of forests was important in limiting connectivity to some sites. The model was relatively robust to changes in population parameters. Synthesis and applications. Connectivity among wild rabbit populations in this system was strongly influenced by habitat heterogeneity, rather than factors such as geographical distance or major landscape elements such as rivers, both of which are traditionally considered to influence system dynamics. This may have substantial implications for many pest systems, and suggests that the impact of habitat heterogeneity on connectivity should be considered when planning efficient management strategies.