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The importance of forest area and configuration relative to local habitat factors for conserving forest mammals: A case study of koalas in Queensland, Australia


Clive A. McAlpinea,b,*, Jonathan R. Rhodesa,b,1, John G. Callaghanc, Michiala E. Bowena,b, Daniel Lunneyd, David L. Mitchellc, David V. Pullara,b, Hugh P. Possinghamb


aCentre for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, Department of Geographical Sciences and Planning, School of  Geography, Planning and Architecture, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia
bThe Ecology Centre, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia
cAustralian Koala Foundation, GPO Box 2659, Brisbane, Qld 4001, Australia
dNew South Wales Department of Environment and Conservation, P.O. Box 1967, Hurstville, NSW 2220, Australia


ABSTRACT
The loss and fragmentation of forest habitats by human land use are recognised as important factors influencing the decline of forest-dependent fauna. Mammal species that are dependent upon forest habitats are particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation because they have highly specific habitat requirements, and in many cases have limited ability to move through and utilise the land use matrix. We addressed this problem using a case study of the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) surveyed in a fragmented rural–urban landscape in southeast Queensland, Australia. We applied a logistic modelling and hierarchical partitioning analysis to determine the importance of forest area and its configuration relative to site (local) and patch-level habitat variables. After taking into account spatial autocorrelation and the year of survey, we found koala occurrence increased with the area of all forest habitats, habitat patch size and the proportion of primary Eucalyptus tree species; and decreased with mean nearest neighbour distance between forest patches, the density of forest patches, and the density of sealed roads. The difference between the effect of habitat area and configuration was not as strong as theory predicts, with the configuration of remnant forest becoming increasingly important as the area of forest habitat declines. We conclude that the area of forest, its configuration across the landscape, as well as the land use matrix, are important determinants of koala occurrence, and that habitat configuration should not be overlooked in the conservation of forest-dependent mammals, such as the koala. We highlight the implications of these findings for koala conservation.