Habitat fragmentation and anthropogenic factors affect wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) occupancy and detectability on Mt. Etna
15 May 2019Anile, Stefano; Devillard, Sebastien; Ragni, Bernardino; Rovero, Francesco; Mattucci, Federica; Lo Valvo, Mario
Knowledge of patterns of occupancy is crucial for planning sound biological management and for identifying areas which require paramount conservation attention. The European wildcat (Felis silvestris) is an elusive carnivore and is classified as “least concern” on the IUCN red list, but with a decreasing population trend in some areas. Sicily hosts a peculiar wildcat population, which deserves conservation and management actions, due to its isolation from the mainland. Patterns of occupancy for wildcats are unknown in Italy, and especially in Sicily. We aimed to identify which ecological drivers determined wildcat occurrence on Mt. Etna and to provide conservation actions to promote the wildcats' long-term survival in this peculiar environment. The genetic identity of the wildcat population was confirmed through a scat-collection which detected 22 different wildcat individuals. We analysed wildcat detections collected by 91 cameras using an occupancy frame work to assess which covariates influenced the detection (p) and the occupancy (ψ) estimates. We recorded 70 detections of the target species from 38 cameras within 3377 trap-days. Wildcat detection was positively influenced by the distance to the major paved roads and negatively affected by the presence of humans. Wildcat occupancy was positively associated with mixed forest and negatively influenced by pine forest, fragmentation of mixed forest and altitude. A spatially explicit predicted occupancy map, validated using an independent dataset of wildcat presence records, showed that higher occupancy estimates were scattered, mainly located on the north face and at lower altitude. Habitat fragmentation has been claimed as a significant threat for the wildcat and this is the first study that has ascertained this as a limiting factor for wildcat occurrence. Conservation actions should promote interconnectivity between areas with high predicted wildcat occupancy while minimising the loss of habitat.