Impacts of forest fragmentation on species richness: a hierarchical approach to community modelling
1. Species richness is often used as a tool for prioritizing conservation action. One method for predicting richness and other summaries of community structure is to develop species-specific models of occurrence probability based on habitat or landscape characteristics. However, this approach can be challenging for rare or elusive species for which survey data are often sparse. 2. Recent developments have allowed for improved inference about community structure based on species-specific models of occurrence probability, integrated within a hierarchical modelling framework. This framework offers advantages to inference about species richness over typical approaches by accounting for both species-level effects and the aggregated effects of landscape composition on a community as a whole, thus leading to increased precision in estimates of species richness by improving occupancy estimates for all species, including those that were observed infrequently. 3. We developed a hierarchical model to assess the community response of breeding birds in the Hudson River Valley, New York, to habitat fragmentation and analysed the model using a Bayesian approach. 4. The model was designed to estimate species-specific occurrence and the effects of fragment area and edge (as measured through the perimeter and the perimeter/area ratio, P/A), while accounting for imperfect detection of species. 5. We used the fitted model to make predictions of species richness within forest fragments of variable morphology. The model revealed that species richness of the observed bird community was maximized in small forest fragments with a high P/A. However, the number of forest interior species, a subset of the community with high conservation value, was maximized in large fragments with low P/A. 6. Synthesis and applications. Our results demonstrate the importance of understanding the responses of both individual, and groups of species, to environmental heterogeneity while illustrating the utility of hierarchical models for inference about species richness for conservation. This framework can be used to investigate the impacts of land-use change and fragmentation on species or assemblage richness, and to further understand trade-offs in species-specific occupancy probabilities associated with landscape variability.