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1.  Modeling the consequences of the demise and potential recovery of a keystone-species: wild rabbits and avian scavengers in Mediterranean landscapes 
Scientific Reports  2015;5:17033.
Restoration of demised keystone-species populations is an overriding concern in conservation biology. However, since no population is independent of its environment, progress is needed in predicting the efficacy of restoration in unstable ecological contexts. Here, by means of Population Dynamics P-system Models (PDP), we studied long-term changes in the population size of Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) inhabiting a Natural Park, northern Spain, to changes in the numbers of wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), a keystone-species of Mediterranean ecosystems that have suffered >90% population decline after a hemorrhagic disease outbreak. Low availability of rabbit carcasses leads Egyptian vultures to extend their foraging activities to unprotected areas with higher non-natural mortality whereas growing numbers of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), a dominant competitor, progressively monopolize trophic resources resulting in a focal population decrease. Modeling shows that, even if keystone-species populations recover in core protected areas, the return to the original studied population size may be unfeasible, due to both the high non-natural mortality rates in humanized areas and long-term changes in the scavenger guild structure. Policy decisions aimed to restore keystone-species should rely on holistic approaches integrating the effects of spatial heterogeneity on both producer and consumer populations as well as within-guild processes.
PMCID: PMC4655486  PMID: 26593338
3.  Who Are We Feeding? Asymmetric Individual Use of Surplus Food Resources in an Insular Population of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus  
PLoS ONE  2013;8(11):e80523.
Supplementary feeding stations, or “vulture restaurants”, are common conservation management tools. While a number of studies have investigated the consequences of surplus food on the population dynamics of scavengers, relatively little is known about the effects of such practices at the individual level. Within the long-term monitored breeding population of Canarian Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus majorensis) we investigated individual bird’s patterns of use of a supplementary feeding station at Fuerteventura (Canary Islands), over the course of breeding (2001, 2002; 2004-2011) and non-breeding seasons (2000-2010). Our results show that during the breeding season the individual use of the supplementary feeding station was inversely related to the distance to the breeding territory, which suggests the existence of central-place foraging constraints. In addition, larger birds of poor body-condition and individuals that ultimately failed to fledge young were detected more frequently at the feeding station. During the non-breeding season, and because most breeding birds abandoned the breeding territories, the overall abundance of Egyptian vultures at the feeding station grew. Moreover, the only variable increasing the probability of presence of individuals was poor body condition so that birds with lower wing residual visited the feeding station more frequently. Supplementary feeding may benefit individuals who would otherwise have been subject to selective pressures. From our results it follows that this conservation strategy must be used with caution because it can have consequences on an individual level and thus potentially affect the viability of endangered populations.
PMCID: PMC3823625  PMID: 24244695
4.  Mast Pulses Shape Trophic Interactions between Fluctuating Rodent Populations in a Primeval Forest 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e51267.
How different functional responses of consumers exploiting pulsed resources affect community dynamics is an ongoing question in ecology. Tree masting is a common resource pulse in terrestrial ecosystems that can drive rodent population cycles. Using stable isotope (δ13C, δ15N) analyses, we investigated the dietary response of two fluctuating rodent species, the yellow-necked mouse Apodemus flavicollis and the bank vole Myodes glareolus, to mast events in Białowieża Forest (NE Poland). Rodent hair samples were obtained non-invasively from faeces of their predators for an 11-year period that encompassed two mast events. Spectacular seed crops of deciduous trees, namely oak Quercus robur and hornbeam Carpinus betulus, occur after several intermediate years of moderate seed production, with a post-mast year characterised by a nil crop. While a Bayesian isotopic (SIAR) mixing model showed a variety of potential vegetation inputs to rodent diets, the isotopic niche of the yellow-necked mouse was strongly associated with mast of deciduous trees (>80% of diet), showing no variation among years of different seed crop. However, bank voles showed a strong functional response; in mast years the vole shifted its diet from herbs in deciduous forest (∼66% of diet) to mast (∼74%). Only in mast years did the isotopic niche of both rodent species overlap. Previous research showed that bank voles, subordinate and more generalist than mice, showed higher fluctuations in numbers in response to masting. This study provides unique data on the functional response of key pulse consumers in forest food webs, and contributes to our understanding of rodent population fluctuations and the mechanisms governing pulse–consumer interactions.
PMCID: PMC3519590  PMID: 23251475
5.  Stress associated with group living in a long-lived bird 
Biology Letters  2011;7(4):608-610.
Many long-lived avian species adopt life strategies that involve a gregarious way of life at juvenile and sub-adult stages and territoriality during adulthood. However, the potential associated costs of these life styles, such as stress, are poorly understood. We examined the effects of group living, sex and parasite load on the baseline concentration of faecal stress hormone (corticosterone) metabolites in a wild population of common ravens (Corvus corax). Corticosterone concentrations were significantly higher in non-breeding gregarious ravens than in territorial adults. Among territorial birds, males showed higher stress levels than their mates. Parasite burdens did not affect hormone levels. Our results suggest a key role of the social context in the stress profiles of the two population fractions, and that group living may be more energetically demanding than maintaining a territory. These findings have implications for understanding hormonal mechanisms under different life styles and may inspire further research on the link between hormone levels and selective pressures modulating gregarious and territorial strategies in long-lived birds.
PMCID: PMC3130225  PMID: 21307048
Białowieża forest; common raven; Corvus corax; glucocorticoids; parasites; sociality
6.  Misleading Population Estimates: Biases and Consistency of Visual Surveys and Matrix Modelling in the Endangered Bearded Vulture 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e26784.
Conservation strategies for long-lived vertebrates require accurate estimates of parameters relative to the populations' size, numbers of non-breeding individuals (the “cryptic” fraction of the population) and the age structure. Frequently, visual survey techniques are used to make these estimates but the accuracy of these approaches is questionable, mainly because of the existence of numerous potential biases. Here we compare data on population trends and age structure in a bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) population from visual surveys performed at supplementary feeding stations with data derived from population matrix-modelling approximations. Our results suggest that visual surveys overestimate the number of immature (<2 years old) birds, whereas subadults (3–5 y.o.) and adults (>6 y.o.) were underestimated in comparison with the predictions of a population model using a stable-age distribution. In addition, we found that visual surveys did not provide conclusive information on true variations in the size of the focal population. Our results suggest that although long-term studies (i.e. population matrix modelling based on capture-recapture procedures) are a more time-consuming method, they provide more reliable and robust estimates of population parameters needed in designing and applying conservation strategies. The findings shown here are likely transferable to the management and conservation of other long-lived vertebrate populations that share similar life-history traits and ecological requirements.
PMCID: PMC3198840  PMID: 22039550
7.  Spatial Heterogeneity in Resource Distribution Promotes Facultative Sociality in Two Trans-Saharan Migratory Birds 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(6):e21016.
Migrant populations must cope not only with environmental changes in different biomes, but also with the continuous constraints imposed by human-induced changes through landscape transformation and resource patchiness. Theoretical studies suggest that changes in food distribution can promote changes in the social arrangement of individuals without apparent adaptive value. Empirical research on this subject has only been performed at reduced geographical scales and/or for single species. However, the relative contribution of food patchiness and predictability, both in space and time, to abundance and sociality can vary among species, depending on their degree of flexibility.
Methodology/Principal Findings
By means of constrained zero-inflated Generalized Additive Models we analysed the spatial distribution of two trans-Saharan avian scavengers that breed (Europe) and winter (Africa) sympatrically, in relation to food availability. In the summering grounds, the probability of finding large numbers of both species increases close to predictable feeding sources, whereas in the wintering grounds, where food resources are widespread, we did not find such aggregation patterns, except for the black kite, which aggregated at desert locust outbreaks. The comparison of diets in both species through stable isotopes revealed that their diets overlapped during summering, but not during wintering.
Our results suggest that bird sociality at feeding grounds is closely linked to the pattern of spatial distribution and predictability of trophic resources, which are ultimately induced by human activities. Migrant species can show adaptive foraging strategies to face changing distribution of food availability in both wintering and summering quarters. Understanding these effects is a key aspect for predicting the fitness costs and population consequences of habitat transformations on the viability of endangered migratory species.
PMCID: PMC3120827  PMID: 21731640

Results 1-7 (7)