Yvette C. Ehlers Smith, David A. Ehlers Smith, T. Ramesh, Colleen T. Downs
Forest Ecology and Management
The spotted ground thrush (Zoothera guttata; SGT) is a globally endangered forest specialist whose distribution is poorly understood in the critically endangered Indian Ocean Coastal Belt Forest (IOCBF) biome on the east coast of southern Africa. More than 70% of the IOCBF has been lost to development, resulting in fragmented forest remnants within a mosaic of different land uses. We conducted camera-trap surveys with 5796 trap-days in 82 forest patches of various sizes across a gradient of land-use types in the IOCBF during the winter seasons of 2014–2016 to establish occupancy (Ψ) of SGT. We used occupancy modelling and incorporated forest microhabitat characteristics and surrounding land-use classifications to compare sites and determine SGT distribution across the habitat mosaic. The top model estimated an average Ψ = 0.39 ± 0.09, and detection probability (P) = 0.11 ± 0.03. At the landscape scale, larger, less isolated patches had a higher Ψ of SGT while P decreased with proximity to cultivated land. At the microhabitat scale, a high percentage of bare ground influenced Ψ positively but P negatively, as did short grass cover. However, short herbaceous cover and high stem density of large (11–15 m) trees influenced P positively. These results detail the influence of landscape-scale factors including forest fragmentation and conversion to agriculture in conjunction with forest microhabitat-scale characteristics, on patch selection and distribution of a cryptic, ground-dwelling species that is both threatened and under-studied. Given its endangered status and dependence on larger and more mature forest patches, SGT may be an effective flagship species for the conservation of threatened IOCBF patches.