Date of Award
Master of Science
Swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus) in southern Illinois exist as a metapopulation due to loss and fragmentation of the bottomland hardwood forests in which they live, making their persistence in the state uncertain. I ran a spatially-explicit population viability analysis (PVA) on the metapopulation, using a habitat suitability map I created and life history parameters drawn from the literature. I varied parameters related to reproduction, survival, catastrophes, dispersal, and carrying capacity from 50 to 150% of the initial value of each parameter to compare their effects on extinction risk. I modified the map to test the effects of potential habitat loss, fragmentation, and the addition of dispersal corridors on the swamp rabbit metapopulation in southern Illinois. Under baseline conditions, the model suggested about a 20% chance of quasi-extinction (90% metapopulation decline) in 25 years. Changes in fecundity values and the effects of catastrophic flooding had the greatest effect on the risk of extinction, causing quasi-extinction probabilities to range from 0 to 100% and 0 to 87%, respectively. In contrast, changing dispersal values yielded the least impact on the risk of extinction (18-24%), and all other parameters had moderate impacts on the model. Removing groups of the largest habitat patches increased the risk of extinction, whereas removing groups of the smallest habitat patches decreased the risk of extinction, suggesting that small patches could act as population sinks with a negative impact on swamp rabbit persistence. Decreasing patch fragmentation per se reduced the risk of extinction slightly. The addition of dispersal corridors made no significant impact on the probability of extinction. My findings indicate that more research estimating fecundity and the effect of catastrophic floods on swamp rabbits in Illinois is required to more accurately predict swamp rabbit persistence in the state. I also suggest that managers should work to decrease the effect of flooding on the population by improving upland habitat, or decrease fragmentation by increasing the area of bottomland hardwood forests around existing habitat patches. Lastly, I suggest managers focus on preventing further habitat fragmentation into small patches, which will mitigate the creation of potential sink populations and will enable current populations to persist.
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