Where can the wild things roam? Combining ecological suitability and human acceptance for the Swiss wolf.

About one third of the Swiss landscape offers suitable wolf habitat. Nonetheless, there is only a small fraction thereof where the wolf is tolerated by local communities. Those regions – characterized by both favourable environmental conditions and a positive attitude towards the wolf – are identified as candidate regions for the successful short to medium-term wolf expansion, according to a study conducted by the population ecology research group at the University of Zurich

©RamiroMarquezPhotos / iStock

The wolf was eradicated in Switzerland and from large parts of continental Europe including France and Germany by the end of the 19th century. Following legal protection, the wolf population started naturally increasing and expanding, and in 1995 its presence was confirmed in Switzerland. Sightings have increased since. Despite 13’800 km2 of Switzerland are characterized by favourable conditions such as large forests with little human pressure and have thus been identified as suitable wolf habitat, wolf expansion in Switzerland has been substantially slower than in other parts of continental Europe. As the wolf is more and more subject to human-dominated landscapes, scientist at the University of Zurich developed a novel method that integrated both ecological and human components to identify regions with favourable environmental conditions and where the wolf was tolerated.

Mapping human acceptance of the wolf to identify suitable socio-ecological areas

socio-ecological suitability model
Combining human acceptance (a, c) and habitat suitability (b, d)
helps identifying socio-ecologically suitable wolf habitats in Switzerland (e).

About one third of 10,000 randomly selected residents in Switzerland participated in the survey. Combining the response from questionnaires with geographical information, Dominik Behr and his team created a nationwide map of human acceptance. Acceptance decreased with increasing altitude of residency and even more so where high numbers of sheep and goats were held. Acceptance increased with increasing distance from confirmed wolf presence and in densely populated areas. People who perceived the wolf as dangerous to humans and harmful to livestock and wildlife mainly opposed the wolf. Younger people, and people who believe that the wolf had a positive influence on the ecosystem had a more positive attitude towards the predator.

“When we overlapped our human acceptance map with a habitat suitability map for the wolf, we realized that only about 6% of Switzerland was characterized by both a positive attitude and favourable environment conditions. This was in contrast to results from the habitat suitability map, which returned one third of the Swiss landscape as being suitable for the wolf” said Dominik Behr. “As wildlife biologists, we are good at understanding the ecological factors determining the suitability of a habitat for a wildlife species. Due to ever-increasing overlap between human and wildlife, however, we are obliged to take into consideration how human acceptance modifies our ecological description of habitat suitability. This study demonstrates one effective way to do this.” stressed Arpat Ozgul, professor of population ecology at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, and co-author of the study.

A novel framework to manage wolves and people
The socio-ecological map created by Dominik Behr and his co-authors appears to accurately represent the wolf situation in Switzerland of the past years, including identifications of areas of high, moderate or limited conflict. “By capturing areas characterized by both favourable environmental conditions and a positive acceptance towards the wolf, our approach is a valuable tool to identify overall socio-ecological suitable areas for the wolf. Under given conditions, those regions are good candidates for the successful short to medium-term expansion of the wolf. Additionally, this approach allows to identify key regions where proactive and targeted socio-ecological management plans and a constructive dialog among different stakeholders are needed” said Dr. Gabriele Cozzi, who coordinated the study.

Special thanks go to the 3142 people that returned the completed questionnaire – this study would not have been possible without their contribution.

Behr DM, Ozgul A, Cozzi G (2017) Combining human attitude and habitat suitability: a unified socio-ecological suitability model for the wolf in Switzerland. Journal of Applied Ecology

African wild dog dispersal and demography

Past and present African wild dog distribution
Past and present African wild dog distribution. The wide ranging African wild dog has been identified as flagship species for the Kavango Zambesi Transfrontier Conservation Area that spanning five countries including Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe plays at home to the largest contiguous population of this endangered carnivore.

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is Africa’s most endangered large carnivore and is listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. The species was formerly distributed throughout sub-Sahara Africa but today it has disappeared from most of its former range. Less than 6’000 free-ranging individuals survive in the wild, and the species has been given very high conservation priority. One major threat to the survival of the species is the loss and fragmentation of suitable habitats due to expanding human population. As a result, wild dogs are forced to live in isolated small subpopulations, which are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Dispersal of individuals is a fundamental process governing the dynamics of socially and spatially structured populations. Through emigration and immigration, dispersing individuals lead to the formation of new groups, can rescue small subpopulations, and recolonize unoccupied areas. There is, however, a mismatch between our understanding of the complexity of dispersal and our representation of dispersal in population dynamic models. This is particularly the case for species characterized by long-distance dispersal, such as the African wild dog, as the fate of dispersers is often unknown and consequently neglected.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana represents one of the last strongholds for this endangered carnivore in southern Africa and, through dispersing individuals, the resident population likely acts as a source population for the natural re-colonization of the surrounding regions. Under these circumstances, understanding how and where wild dogs disperse, and assessing connectivity between subpopulations is fundamental for the management and conservation of the species across large wildlife landscapes such as the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA/TFCA), for which wild dogs have been identified as a flagship species. Recent miniaturization of tracking devices finally allows us to follow dispersers in their whereabouts and collect information on dispersal movement patterns (e.g. travelled distance) and dispersal success (e.g. survival rate during dispersal), and to evaluate connectivity across the landscapes of KAZA/TFCA.

The aim of this project is to improve the long-term viability and connectivity of African wild dog subpopulations nationally and across the KAZA/TFCA landscapes by providing new empirical evidence and novel information on dispersal and its demographic consequences. To this end, we bring together novel information on dispersing individuals and 25 years of individual-based life-history data from resident groups to provide an explicit investigation of dispersal in African wild dogs. We deploy GPS/Satellite radio collars on sub-adult African wild dogs that disperse from their natal group, to collect information on dispersal patterns, habitat use and selection during dispersal, survival, settlement success in a new territory, and reproductive success of newly formed packs. This information on dispersing individuals will be merged with existing long-term demographic data on resident groups to inform a spatially explicit demographic model at an unprecedented level of detail. Our project will allow assessing population viability and extinction risks under changing environmental and anthropogenic scenarios and thus help identifying key conservation actions. Results from this project will be used to inform effective national and international management plans.

This project complies with one of the main objectives identified in the Regional conservation strategy for the cheetah and wild dog in southern Africa (IUCN/SSC 2009) in the “Strategic plan for African wild dogs in KAZA 2014 – 2018” (KAZA TFCA Secretariat, 2014) that aim to improve awareness and knowledge by “acquiring a better understanding of dispersal, habitat use and connectivity for wild dogs”.

A dispersing wild dog watches the sun setting over a lagoon in the Okavango Delta, northern Botswana (Photo: Dominik Behr)

By placing dispersal into a wider ecological and demographic context, this project will increase our fundamental biological understanding of dispersal and help improve our ability to predict and manage the responses of endangered carnivores to environmental and anthropogenic perturbations. This project will provide an important scientific insight for evidence-based conservation of the African wild dog, but also for other wide-ranging carnivores such as the cheetah and the lion.

This project has been developed in collaboration and coordination with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, the longest running conservation research study on African wild dogs. Financial support has been granted by Zurich University, Idea Wild, Jacot Foundation, Parrotia Foundation, Temperatio Foundation, and Wilderness Wildlife Trust.

In collaboration with:

Movement Ecology Summer School 2015

On the basis of the success obtained in 2013, our group, and in collaboration with the Life Science Zurich Graduate School,  is proud to announce the upcoming Movement Ecology Summer School 2015  that will be held in Faido, in the heart of the Swiss Alps (August 23–28 2015). We already secured the contribution of leading scientist: Prof. Luca Börger, Prof. John Fieberg, Dr. Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, Dr. Frank Pennekamp, Dr. Gabriele Cozzi.

PhD students from UZH and ETHZ will have priority, but few places shall be available for external participants too.

This one-week course covers several aspects of animal movement ecology and includes both theoretical/conceptual and practical sessions.

The course builds on analytical complexity and leads the participant through several steps. During day one, the participants will learn to source landscape information through available remote sensing imagery and to import, manipulate and represent geographical data into R. Day two will be dedicated to the decomposition of movement trajectories and characterisation of movement modes and phases. During day three the participants will be exposed to common methods used in the calculation of home ranges and discuss the pros and cons. During the next day we will use presence/absence data to analyze habitat selection and create species distribution models. Finally, during the last day, the participants will be exposed to some new tools and methodologies to include data from alternative sensors (e.g. accelerometers) in the study of animal movements. Fundamental aspects such as study design, spatial autocorrelation, sources of error and time varying covariates will be discussed.

Data sets will be provided but the participants are encouraged to bring their own data. Basic knowledge in R is required. Participants should bring their own laptop with the latest version of R installed. Active participation during the course is required to obtain the credit points.

Turkish Bears and the Mc’Donald’s effect

…The bears living in the Sarikamis Forest National Park belong to an isolated and relict population not connected to any other larger and viable bear populations…”. This is what we believed two years ago, at the beginning of the project. And we were wrong!

Now, after two years of continuos data collection from 16 GPS radio-collared bears, we are slowly starting to understand their local and regional movement patterns their ecology and social organisation.

Together with our collaborators of the turkish-based NGO Kuzei Doga, the University of Utah, and the University of Zagreb we discovered that our study bears are capable of long-distance movements of more than 100 km. And this across an allegedly hostile and human-dominated landscape. These long distance trips thus allow the bears to reach a larger bear population that lives along the Black Sea coast and across Georgia.

Interestingly, only half of the collared bears undertook these long-distance movements. The other bears never left the surrounding of the Sarikamis forest, instead they regularly visited the Sarikamis city garbage dump.

We were so able to characterise two distinct behavioural morphs: (i) ‘dump bears’ who never left the Sarikamis forest and fed at the city dump, and (ii) ‘wild bears’  who never visited the dump and regularly migrated. As the observed migratory trips happened right before hibernation, we speculate that they are linked to fattening before the winter. This idea is corroborated by the fact that dump bears also increased their visit rate at the dump right before hibernation.

Future work will allow us to tell which of the two strategies is the most adaptive: McDonald fast food or bio-products?

For the time-being we are happy to have made it to the public media.





Gabriele receives the ZGZ Price for Nature and Environmental Protection

This Tuesday, Dr. Gabriele Cozzi gave a public talk at the Zurich Zoological Society about his PhD work on wild dogs, hyenas and lions in Botswana, and in collaboration with  the University of Zurich and the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust :

“Mit Katzen (nicht) kommunizieren: ein Hundeleben”

“In (no) communication with cats: A dog’s life”

At the end of his talk, Gabriele received the prestigious Price for Nature and Environmental Protection (2013) in recognition of his contribution to wildlife conservation in Africa. Congratulations to Gabriele for this well-deserved award!


Well begun is half done

After 5 weeks spent in South Africa it is time to draw the first conclusions regarding our new-born project on dispersal in meerkats. I do not want to sound presumptuous but I feel confident saying that this trip has been a great success. And as you know…well begun is half done. But let’s start with some facts from the field.

After few days spent testing the new collars and equipment, getting familiar with the terrain and the road system on the reserve, and getting to know all researchers and volunteers working at the Kalahari Meerkat Project, things got suddenly hectic when one morning we received a radio call from Teja (one of the volunteers) saying that she sighted a female evicted by her natal group a few weeks before being chased by some members of the neighboring group. We could not miss that chance, our first evicted female!

A breathing mask is applied over the head of the meerkat while it is still in the pillow case
A breathing mask is applied over the head of the meerkat while it is still in the pillow case

In few minutes and with the much-appreciated help of Lewis and Sky (the project field managers) we prepared the equipment to capture and anesthetize what turned out to be VLF143 (or spelled out: Female 143 of the Lazuli group). It took only a split second for Sky to close his fingers around the base of the tail of VLF143 that, without even noticing, found herself rowing with the four legs in the air before being gently put in a pillow case to be immobilized. Sky and Lewis applied a breathing mask with a mixture of Isoflurane and Oxygen over her head and in few seconds VLF143 was fast asleep. Few minutes later she was up and running again and, as if nothing happened, she resumed her activities. But this time with a collar around her neck.  In the following 13 days, thanks to the precious calls of the volunteers – our eyes on the reserve – we successfully collared additional 3 females (VEKF010, VJXF035 and VAZF027) from 3 different groups. Hopefully, by the end of this first field season, we will have collared a total of 10 females.

We are closely monitoring each collared individual to make sure that the collars do not negatively influence the animals and to collect important behavioral and ecological data. Daily observations already allowed collecting important information that will allow fine-tuning our research questions. GPS movement data automatically recorded by the collars at one-hour interval during daytime will be analyzed as a function of environmental factors (e.g. rainfall, temperature), social circumstances (e.g. number of individuals in the dispersing coalition but also their location in relation to unrelated territorial groups) and the animal’s individual state (e.g. body condition, stress level). In the long run, we aim to use information on dispersing individuals such as survival rate and reproductive success to improve already existing population dynamic models.

Close follows up are essential to record important behavioural and ecological information and to keep the animals habituated to researchers
Close follows up are essential to record important behavioural and ecological information and to keep the animals habituated to researchers

The first days of our monitoring already provided us with some very useful information. Female VJXF035 lost her sister (VJXF039) with whom she was travelling with after a car run her over. VJXF035 is now back with her group after the dominant female allowed her to rejoin. The collar that we fitted on female VAZF027 (who was dispersing alone) got found lying on the ground…without VAZF027. The collar was covered in blood and fur indicating that VAZF027 got predated, most likely by a raptor. Female VLF143 seems to have found a clever strategy to avoid spending too much time alone (the more eyes scanning around the lower the chance to be taken by a raptor of course); she has already associated, and mated, with 8 different males… I spare you the details. We hope that sooner or later she will build a somehow more stable bond with one or more males and that they will soon set off to find their own territory. Female VEKF010 seems to be the more enterprising and has already crossed the territory of two foreign groups. She has occasionally associated with a couple of males but she seems to be prioritizing a disperser’s business (the actually dispersing) to  a disperser’s pleasure (I believe it is clear what I am referring to…).

Movements of four collared females in and around Kuruman River Reserve, home to the Kalahari Meerkat Project
Movements of four collared females in and around Kuruman River Reserve, home to the Kalahari Meerkat Project

While I had to return to the foggy and miserable Zurich weather, Nino will remain in the sunny Kalahari until the end of March and will continue monitoring dispersing individuals. More info will follow soon.

Moving forward – Animal Movement Ecology Summer School

The last week of August could not have been more hectic and inspiring for some of the people of our lab. The first Animal Movement Ecology Summer School held at the University of Zurich as part of the PhD Program in Ecology of the Life Science Zurich Graduate School has been a great success. We managed to bring together 30 highly dedicated and motivated participants from UZH/ETHZ and from overseas as well as seven top lecturers for what has been an intense and dynamic week.

Participants had the opportunity to alternate high-quality lectures – covering a wide range of topics, such as remote sensing, home-range and movement analysis, patch occupancy models, population dynamics – with some social activities, such has bbq and the long-sought-after jump in the Limmat, the local river. The scope of such activities was to quickly create a cohesive group and promote interactions among the participants and with the lecturers to establish future collaborations. A great success has been the day organised at the Tierpark Goldau, where we had the possibility to follow lectures in a natural and inspiring environment.


Participants interacting during one exercise in the suggestive class room at the Tierpark Goldau
Participants interacting during one exercise in the suggestive class room at the Tierpark Goldau

We, organizers, received very positive feedbacks from all participants, which is very encouraging, and we are therefore keen to offer a similar, and even more exciting, course during the summer 2014! Stay tuned on this blog if you do not want to miss-out and want to…keep moving forward!

Necklaces for the girls, cars for the boys – Preparations for the first meerkat field season

Cable tie and epoxy instead of diamonds

My name is MaagNino Maag, and I am about to start my PhD in the Population Ecology lab. During my study, I will investigate dispersal strategies in a wild population of the Kalahari meerkat (Suricata suricatta) in South Africa. I will use high-resolution GPS telemetry data collected from GPS radio collared dispersing female subordinates to investigate the influence of individual traits, environmental factors and social context on transition and settlement strategies. Furthermore, I will assess the survival rates of dispersing females during the stages of transition and settlement. The results of my study shall provide the complementary information on dispersal for more comprehensive spatially explicit population dynamics models and the investigation of alternative life history strategies.

Alex is applying the epoxy.
Alex is applying the epoxy.

In order to acquire movement data of the dispersing individuals, we had to prepare GPS collars. However, two days before leaving for South Africa, the GPS collars yet had to be built. For this reason we set up a workshop in our office in Zurich. On Monday afternoon, 23 September, Gabriele and I were supposed to take a plane to Johannesburg and on Saturday morning we started the workshop. Alex, engineer at CDD Ltd in Athens, followed in for the weekend to build the collars with us.

GPS collar.
GPS collar.

Since meerkats are small animals and we plan to collect detailed dispersal data in an extended area over a time period of six months, GPS collars have to meet a set of specific requirements: The weight has to be below 25 grams, the coating must be robust but should not interfere with the GPS signal, the belting can not be too edgy, and both the GPS data collection schedule and the bidirectional remote communication regime (ZigBee) should be as frequent but in the same time as economic as possible. The GPS device, VHF sender, ZigBee component, and battery were coated with epoxy. We applied cable tie as belting, which will later get covered with heat shrink to make the edges smooth. The epoxy may not be as shiny as diamonds, but the girls will still be fitted with decent solid necklaces.

After a hard weekend’s work, which lasted until Monday noon, Gabriele and I just managed to catch the plane in the afternoon.

Big cars for big boys

In the early Tuesday morning, Gabriele and I arrived in Johannesburg. I bought some airtime and data for my iPhone, Gabriele a new cell phone. After that we picked up the rental car and headed out to buy a field vehicle. Equipped with a Kia picanto and a Tomtom, everything was prepared for the day becoming a successful journey. I have to tell you though, Johannesburg is quite a big city and it took time to visit the different car dealers in the different neighborhoods, especially without a street map. Fortunately, our hosts Nancy and Greg at the Strathavon bed and breakfast were very nice and, besides offering an extra bedroom for free, provided us with a street map, which enabled us to plan next day’s car search a lot more efficient.

Two experts do the technical examination of our Toyota Hilux.
Two experts do the technical examination of our Toyota Hilux.

On Wednesday afternoon we tried our luck in Pretoria. That was a smart move as we found two nice vehicles on that day. Two good-looking Toyota Hilux 3.0 4×4, both were diesel and in good condition. Just the type of car we need! On Thursday we even found a third one. All three dealers agreed to bring their vehicle to a mechanic for full mechanical examination. Well, I had to learn that you should not trust these people too much. One changed his mind and did not bring the car at all, and the second one sold the car to someone else while we were making the technical examination. First comes, first serves! That left us with only one car, a Toyota Hilux 3.0 Diesel 4×4 KZ-TE 2004. To be honest, that was the best one anyway. What a nice car!

Our new hosts Jenny and Pat, the owners of the Sengwe Place bed and breakfast, provided us with an entire apartment. They are such friendly and welcoming people, and, besides a lot of other things, they helped us to buy insurance for the car. On Friday we will hit the road and eventually drive to the field site near Van Zylsrus, Northern Cape. Lets chase some meerkats.

Gabriele receives the Claraz Research Grant

One of our gentlemen carrying a GPS collar + crittercam.
One of our gentlemen carrying a GPS/crittercam collar.

Congratulations to Gabriele for receiving the well-deserved Georges und Antoine Claraz Donation for his brown bear project in north-eastern Turkey. Yet another bear will be carrying our GPS collars.

Here’s a cool article on Georges Claraz, a Swiss naturalist (1832–1930) who pioneered the first expeditions to northern Patagonia.