A 28-years-long monitoring study suggests heavy decline and habitat shifts in three populations of a Mediterranean tortoise species
Long-term ecological studies are important for understanding wild populations’ dynamics and processes and the actual factors that can determine their decline. Here, we report the results of a 28-years-long (1992–2019) monitoring of three distinct populations of a tortoise, Testudo hermanni, in Central Italy, with an emphasis on their population abundance trends and on the eventual variation in their habitat use across years and among the study areas. Samplings were conducted by Visual Encounter Survey (VES) methodology, and using a suite of statistical analyses including correlations and Generalized Linear Models analyses. Our data showed a statistically significant decline in tortoise sightings through time, and concurrently also a variation in habitat use by tortoises. In all the three study areas, we observed a significant increase of tortoise sighting frequency in the habitat type characterized by high (>taller than 200 cm) shrubby and wooded vegetation. Since our analyses revealed no significant change in the habitat type availability by year in each study area, we suggest that T. hermanni was increasingly selecting closed vegetation spots throughout the years. We hypothesize that this observed trend of shift in habitat selection could be due to lowering their body temperatures to prevent overheating. So, the selection of more covered spots would be a thermal ecology adaptive consequence of the ongoing global warming.