Linking like with like: optimising connectivity between environmentally-similar habitats

Habitat fragmentation is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. To minimise the effect of fragmentation on biodiversity, connectivity between otherwise isolated habitats should be promoted. However, the identification of linkages favouring connectivity is not trivial. Firstly, they compete with other land uses, so they need to be cost-efficient. Secondly, linkages for one species might be barriers for others, so they should effectively account for distinct mobility requirements. Thirdly, detailed information on the auto-ecology of most of the species is lacking, so linkages need being defined based on surrogates. In order to address these challenges we develop a framework that (a) identifies environmentally-similar habitats; (b) identifies environmental barriers (i.e., regions with a very distinct environment from the areas to be linked), and; (c) determines cost-efficient linkages between environmentally-similar habitats, free from environmental barriers. The assumption is that species with similar ecological requirements occupy the same environments, so environmental similarity provides a rationale for the identification of the areas that need to be linked. A variant of the classical minimum Steiner tree problem in graphs is used to address c). We present a heuristic for this problem that is capable of handling large datasets. To illustrate the framework we identify linkages between environmentally- similar protected areas in the Iberian Peninsula. The Natura 2000 network is used as a positive ‘attractor’ of links while the human footprint is used as ‘repellent’ of links.Wecompare the outcomes of our approach with cost-efficient networks linking protected areas that disregard the effect of environmental barriers. As expected, the latter achieved a smaller area covered with linkages, but with barriers that can significantly reduce the permeability of the landscape for the dispersal of some species.