A landscape-scale assessment of tropical mammals reveals the effects of habitat and anthropogenic disturbance on community occupancy

With biodiversity facing unparalleled threats from anthropogenic disturbance, knowledge on the occurrences of species and communities provides for an effective and fast approach to assess their status and vulnerability. Disturbance is most prominent at the landscape-level, for example through habitat loss from large-scale resource extraction or agriculture. However, addressing species responses to habitat changes at the landscape-scale can be difficult and cost-ineffective, hence studies are mostly conducted at single areas or habitat patches. Moreover, there is a relative lack of studies on communities, as opposed to focal species, despite the former may carry more comprehensive information. Here, we used a multi-region, multi-species hierarchical occupancy model to study a meta-community of mammals detected by camera traps across five distinct areas within a heterogeneous landscape in Tanzania, and aimed to assess responses to human disturbance and environmental variables. Estimated species richness did not vary significantly across different areas, even though these held broadly different habitats. Moreover, we found remarkable consistency in the positive effect of distance to human settlements, a proxy for anthropogenic disturbance, on community occupancy. The positive effect of body size and the positive effect of proximity to rivers on community occupancy were also shared by communities. Results yield conservation relevance because: (1) the among-communities consistency in responses to anthropogenic disturbance, despite the heterogeneity in sampled habitats, indicates that conservation plans designed at the landscape-scale may represent a comprehensive and cost-efficient approach; (2) the consistency in responses to environmental factors suggests that multi-species models are a powerful method to study ecological patterns at the landscape-level.