Uncovering environmental, land-use and fire effects on the distribution of a low-dispersal species, the Hermann’s tortoise Testudo hermanni
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Habitat destruction has resulted in the fragmented distribution of numerous terrestrial species, which poses a challenge for conservationists. Furthermore, species management can be further compounded by life history constraints such as low dispersal, hindering the ability of species to recolonize areas they formerly occupied. For these species, a thorough understanding of the local threats and factors that limit their distribution is crucial for effective management. We used occupancy models to examine which factors at landscape and habitat scales (i.e. land uses, fire history, and vegetation structure) explain the presence of terrestrial tortoises within the range of the westernmost isolated population of the endangered Testudo hermanni hermanni in the Albera Range (NE of the Iberian Peninsula). We randomly surveyed 25 sites (75% of the area known with presence of tortoises) of natural woodlands with 5 to 8 replicates per site in spring 2012-2014. From a sampling effort of 148 hours, we only detected 52 tortoises in 12 of 25 transects. These low numbers are evidence of low population densities. Sites with presence of tortoises were spatially aggregated although the species was absent from apparently adequate sites on the edges of its distribution range. Current and historic land-use primarily explained the presence of tortoises. Besides, wildfires and reduction of habitat complexity also participate to explain the distribution of Hermann’s tortoises. We also discuss some aspects of the conservation of Testudo hermanni in relation to our results.