Landscape modification and habitat fragmentation disrupt the connectivity of natural landscapes, with major consequences for biodiversity. Species that require patchily distributed habitats, such as those that specialize on early successional ecosystems, must disperse through a landscape matrix with unsuitable habitat types. We evaluated landscape effects on dispersal of an early successional obligate, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis). Using a landscape genetics approach, we identified barriers and facilitators of gene flow and connectivity corridors for a population of cottontails in the northeastern United States. We modeled dispersal in relation to landscape structure and composition and tested hypotheses about the influence of habitat fragmentation on gene flow. Anthropogenic and natural shrubland habitats facilitated gene flow, while the remainder of the matrix, particularly development and forest, impeded gene flow. The relative influence of matrix habitats differed between study areas in relation to a fragmentation gradient. Barrier features had higher explanatory power in the more fragmented site, while facilitating features were important in the less fragmented site. Landscape models that included a simultaneous barrier and facilitating effect of roads had higher explanatory power than models that considered either effect separately, supporting the hypothesis that roads act as both barriers and facilitators at all spatial scales. The inclusion of LiDAR-identified shrubland habitat improved the fit of our facilitator models. Corridor analyses using circuit and least cost path approaches revealed the importance of anthropogenic, linear features for restoring connectivity between the study areas. In fragmented landscapes, human-modified habitats may enhance functional connectivity by providing suitable dispersal conduits for early successional specialists.


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This is an article published by PLOS in PLoS ONE in 2016, available online: