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UF study: Protecting one species may help others survive

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Can protecting the habitat of a single species ensure the survival of co-occurring wildlife? A study by one University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researcher suggests it may work for certain ecosystems.

As human activity continues to alter wild habitats, it becomes more important to find efficient ways of preserving what remains, said Shelly Johnson, a biological scientist at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, Florida. Johnson performed a study of whether prioritizing maintenance of gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker habitat would benefit other species.

Ecosystems house a variety of species. Within some ecosystems, there are keystone species that exert a positive influence on other species, Johnson said. For longleaf pine ecosystems, these species are the gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker, she said.

It takes substantial resources to maintain an ecosystem; Johnson suggests it would be more efficient for conservationists to focus on one or two species, knowing that others would benefit as well.

Managing tortoise and woodpecker habitat is particularly important, as the tortoise is a threatened species in Florida, and the woodpecker is federally endangered, Johnson said.

Johnson, along with researchers from the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation and the department of wildlife ecology and conservation, analyzed the “suitability index” across the state of Florida, or the probability that habitats of tortoises or woodpeckers would occur there.

They used a computer program to analyze environmental characteristics such as vegetation and soil quality. Certain characteristics corresponded with a high likelihood that tortoise or woodpecker habitat may occur there, she said. They also compared the suitability of habitat among the keystone species and eight other species– a mix of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

However, Johnson is reluctant to say that her results mean researchers can target just one or two species, and expect everything else to survive. Her study only focused on two species, and one showed greater overlap with co-occurring species than the other keystone.

“We found that the gopher tortoise was more likely to provide highly suitable habitat for other species, in addition to itself, compared to the woodpecker,” Johnson said. “I think part of what we showed is one more example of potentially where it is useful.”

However, the study does bear significance for the state of Florida, Johnson said. Undertaking land management practices that preserve gopher tortoise habitat ensures the survival of a variety of species within longleaf pine ecosystems, she said.

Click here to read the full study.



By: Ellison Langford

Media Contact: Beverly James, 352-273-3566,

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