ORLANDO, Nov. 2, 2021 – A new study has identified four animal populations around the world that are the most vulnerable to extinction in the next 50 years if observed roadkill levels persist:
- Leopard Panthera pardus of North India (83% increased risk of extinction from roadkill)
- Maned wolf of Brazil (34% increased risk of extinction)
- Little spotted cat of Brazil (increased extinction risk ranging from 0 to 75%)
- Brown hyena of Southern Africa (increased extinction risk ranging from 0 to 75%).
The study, which appeared in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography and is co-authored by a University of Central Florida researcher, quantified how big of a threat roads can be to the survival of animal populations around the world.
Roads are essential infrastructure that connect people and circulate supplies but when they intersect with nature, the impact to species survival can be deadly; however, just how deadly has been largely unknown until this study.
“It is important to protect the diversity of species on Earth because each species has a role in the ecosystems, and the loss of species triggers the loss of other species within its ecosystem,” says Clara Grilo, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow with the Universidade de Lisboa in Portugal. “Humans depend on healthy ecosystems like healthy soils, forests, grasslands, rivers, oceans. Otherwise, we risk our own health.”
Knowing which animal populations are most vulnerable to extinction by roadkill can inform infrastructure management decisions, such as where new roads will go and how to protect vulnerable animal populations in those areas.
These protections can include combinations of underpasses or overpasses with fencing to guide animals to use those passages, Grilo says.
To perform the study, the researchers used existing roadkill data for near threatened to critically endangered mammal species on six continents — North America, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Then, taking into account data such as population density and roadkill rates as well as animal traits like sexual maturity age and litter size, the researchers were able to calculate increased extinction risk due to roadkill. This information was then used to create global roadkill vulnerability maps.
Eric Goolsby, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Biology and study co-author, was responsible for much of the phylogenetic work that estimated any missing trait values for species in the study by using trait data on closely related relatives.
“We used a missing data imputation approach based on trait correlations and evolutionary relatedness,” Goolsby says. “I developed a software package in the R programming language which allowed us to perform these calculations on large datasets. Our dataset, which consists of multiple traits spanning thousands of species, would have otherwise been computationally infeasible to analyze using previously existing software implementations.
“Dr. Grilo read some of my publications on efficient phylogenetic comparative methods and asked if it would be possible to take her dataset and use it to try to predict their trait values that we could use to estimate species vulnerabilities to roadkill and extinction risks,” he says. “And I said it would absolutely be possible. So, I joined as a collaborator, and we've been working on this project ever since.”
Certain traits, such as early age of sexual maturity and large litter sizes, can help species bounce back from the toll of roadkill deaths, Grilo says.
But for others, such as brown and black bears that have late maturity age and small litters, roadkill can have a big impact on their population.
“Using the phylogenetic models, we could predict which species are more vulnerable to roadkill and found that brown bear and black bears are particularly vulnerable,” Grilo says. “If there is at least 20% of the population road killed it can increase by 10% the risk of local extinction.”
In Florida, vehicle collisions are responsible for 90% of known bear deaths, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
For the endangered Florida panther, more than 85% of recorded panther deaths were due to vehicles in 2020, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida panthers share a similar increased risk of extinction with bears based on the study’s data for their species, Puma concolor, where a 10% increased risk of extinction occurs if at least 27% of the population is killed by traffic.
“We should be all concerned about these risks and implement measures to avoid roadkill,” she says.
Grilo says the next steps for the research are to develop user-friendly software to display observed roadkill data and show areas where species are more vulnerable to vehicle deaths.
“This will be a valuable tool for road planners and road managers to identify road segments to implement mitigation measures in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she says. “We are looking for funding to develop the software because we already know how to do it.”
Goolsby received his doctoral degree in toxicology from the University of Georgia. He joined UCF’s Department of Biology, part of the College of Sciences, in 2018.
Study co-authors were Luis Borda-de-Água and Pedro Beja with the Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, Associado, Universidade do Porto, Campus Agrário de Vairão R. Padre Armand Quintas, Vairão, Portugal and Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, Laboratorio Associado, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal; Kylie Soanes with Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, National Environmental Science Programme, School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Aliza le Roux with Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of the Free State, Phuthaditjihaba, Qwaqwa, Republic of South Africa; Elena Koroleva with the Department of Biogeography, Faculty of Geography, Moscow State Lomonosov University, Moscow, Russia; Flávio Z. Ferreira with Departamento de Ecologia e Conservação, Instituto de Ciências Naturais, Universidade Federal de Lavras, Lavras, Brazil; Sara A. Gagné with Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, North Carolina; Yun Wang with Research Center for Environment Protection and Water and Soil Conservation, China Academy of Transportation Sciences, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China; and Manuela González-Suárez with Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, UK.
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Global Ecology and Biogeography
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Conservation threats from roadkill in the global road network
Article Publication Date