How Can Cities Protect Species Threatened by Climate Change?

Professor Frithjof Lutscher, in collaboration with professors Elizabeth Crone (Tufts University), Leone Brown (Tufts), Jenny Hodgson (University of Liverpool) and Cheryl Schultz (Washington State University)

Department of Mathematics and Statistics

In collaboration with partners from Tufts, Liverpool, and Washington State universities, Professor Lutscher of the University of Ottawa was part of a major project that seeks to protect species at risk. The project aims to find ways for cities and suburbs to increase the ranges of species at risk by striking the right balance between high- and low-quality habitats.

Professor Lutscher’s research began by considering how individuals travel through varied landscapes. It seemed reasonable to suppose that individuals in search of food travel more quickly through low-quality habitats than through high-quality habitats, and also that individuals travel more often towards high-quality habitats than towards lower quality ones. The first part of this research involved a meta-analysis of movement studies, which confirmed that most species behave this way. The second part consisted of deriving and analyzing a mathematical model that could extrapolate, based on local empirical movement data, in order to answer the question of how quickly a given species can spread across a variety of landscapes. Professor Lutscher’s results showed that range expansion was fastest through landscapes composed of around 15% high-quality habitat and 85% low-quality habitat. This stands to reason: when animals are in low-quality habitats, they travel longer, more quickly and in straighter lines to reach high-quality habitats.

For many species at risk, such as the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, the amount of high-quality habitat in landscapes managed by humans is considerably less than ideal. To foster this species’ survival, planners would need to create islands of ideal conditions to protect the butterflies as they migrate towards better habitats. Consequently, the success of this initiative rests on dedicating green spaces in urban areas along migratory corridors so that these species have the stepping stones they need to safely migrate.
According to Professor Lutscher, urban and suburban planners should allocate at least 15% of green space to animal-friendly habitats to save species that are at risk due to climate change. He noted that “when a minimum standard is met, urban green spaces could in fact become an advantageous conduit for migration.”

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