6.3.2. Innovative approaches applied in transport ecology monitoring

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Last update: June 2023

Approaches related to animal ethology

In addition to innovative inventory techniques, there are concepts that are increasingly being used in conservation ecology and which could be integrated to any assessment of the impact of infrastructure on biodiversity. Research related to eco-ethology is the main topic of this section, but new fields of research such as the ecology of fear and the ecology of movement may also be discussed.

Eco-ethology, or behavioural ecology, studies what behaviour an animal adopts to maximise its chances of survival and reproduction in each environment. This discipline can link the pressures created by human activities and the chances of survival of an animal population which can be important for the restoration of biodiversity.

Movement ecology aims to better understand movement behaviour at the level of the individual animal and the consequences of this in terms of populations. It is an interdisciplinary approach and has particular relevance when planning wildlife passages, and lies at the interface between eco-ethology, ethology and cognitive neuroscience, and conservation biology.

When assessing the impact of an infrastructure on biodiversity or assessing the effectiveness of a corrective measure to restore ecological continuity, it is important to gather as much information as possible about the target species, such as their instinctive behaviour and what adaptations they make in their environment.

To do this effectively, it is advisable to understand as much as possible about the animal, so that the design and management of measures intended to protect the animal can be finely-tuned. This will also enable a better choice of inventorying or monitoring techniques for these species as it will help to identify, for example, the technique that will cause the least possible disturbance to the target species. Key information needed includes:

At population level:

  • Minimum area necessary for a viable population.
  • Minimum size of a viable core population.
  • Requirements for dispersal capacity of individuals within populations (for long conservation of a metapopulation).

At individual level

  • Habitats and associated areas necessary for the survival of the species in its territory.
  • Animal movement changes related to life cycle, including different life stages (larval, nymphal, adult, in insects) and phases within the life cycle (aquatic, terrestrial, aerial). 
  • Distance movement required to reach resting, breeding or feeding grounds.
  • Food availability in the territory.
  • Main predators of the species
  • Barriers to movement, such as fences, continuous concrete barriers, concrete or asphalt surfaces, impassable water environments, etc.) and how an animal may behave when faced with these obstacles.
  • Sensitivity of the species to be able to adapt to random and changing events caused by human.
  • Potential disturbances caused to animal movement by odours, sound, light, vibrations, pollutants or lethal substrates, presence or humans and likely behavioural response when faced with these factors.

Finding this information can sometimes be difficult because knowledge of the ecology of the species and their behaviour is often fragmentary. Furthermore, the variability of behaviour within a species must be considered. It is also important to consider the likelihood of exceptional phenomena such as storms or floods, which can have major consequences both in terms of habitat modifications and the ability of individuals to move.

Although a great deal of data available about a species and its behaviour can be collected from the literature, data specific to the siting of transport infrastructure will require consulting cartographic databases and naturalist databases as well as carrying out field surveys.

Approaches using predictive algorithms

Much progress has been made in recent years in modelling based on machine learning showing how the presence and distribution of species evolves over time. However, a knowledge of the statistics and probabilities is required for building models related to population changes, and further competent computer coding skills are necessary to create efficient and robust algorithms which project these. Once an algorithm has been executed, the machine can learn and predict specific phenomena and become more capable of doing this effectively as it receives new data.

While a holistic vision of landscape ecology helps the understanding of complex interactions between species and their environment, spatially specific models provide a more efficient understanding of habitat use, ecological characteristics and species behaviour.

Integration and use of naturalist databases in monitoring design

The collection of data national censuses from EIA surveys and from citizen science is an opportunity to plan the survey of flora and fauna for a transport infrastructure project and can help pinpoint the most important biodiversity issues, in addition to those which are protected by law, for strategic planning. Main problems are to know where to source data on fauna, flora and natural habitats and also to be able to assess the level of validation performed on these data. Data collection methods vary widely, ranging from amateur volunteer efforts to professionals working on behalf of large institutions. Once collected, data must be rigorously validated and integrated into databases with as much standardisation as possible to facilitate their exchange between data platforms. The level of validation of the data needs to be established before it can be reused it for spatial planning projects.  Data from these sources are generally open source and can be accessed and downloaded free of charge at varying levels of accuracy and resolution, which may or may not be appropriate for project level assessment.

Where to find information in Europe?

The European Environment Agency’s Biodiversity Data Centre aims to identify the main institutional bodies managing naturalist databases in Europe. The Biodiversity Data Centre (BDC) provides access to data and information on species, habitat types and sites of interest in Europe and to related products for biodiversity indicators and assessments. Priority is given to policy-relevant data and information for European and national institutions, professionals, researchers and the public. However, the information is incomplete, so it may not be easy to find specific information. There is no single European website that lists all the naturalist data for a territory. It will often be necessary to carry out an investigation of potential data sources, from local non-governmental organizations to large national bodies such as natural history museums. Normally, national institutional bodies are responsible for collecting as much data as possible from their regional sources.

In addition to national or regional database there are also global ones. One relevant example is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), which is an international network and data infrastructure funded by governments and aimed at providing open access to data about all types of life on Earth. The GBIF network of participating countries and organizations, working through participant nodes, provides data-holding institutions around the world with common standards, best practice and open-source tools enabling them to share information on when and where species have been recorded. Another example is the iNaturalist website, which is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. iNaturalist provides a place to record and organize nature findings, meet other nature enthusiasts, and learn about the natural world. It encourages participation from a wide variety of nature enthusiasts, including e.g. hikers, bird-watchers, hunters or fishermans. The eBird database also contains a substantial amount of information specifically about birds.


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