Niche-based approach to explore the impacts of environmental disturbances on biodiversity

Jarrod Sopniewski, Renee Catullo, Michelle Ward, Nicola Mitchell, Ben C. Scheele

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Globally, species are increasingly at risk from compounding threatening processes, an increasingly prominent driver of which is environmental disturbances. To facilitate effective conservation efforts following such events, methods that evaluate potential impacts across multiple species and provide landscape-scale information are needed to guide targeted responses. Often, the geographic overlap between a disturbance and species’ distribution is calculated and then used as a proxy for potential impact. However, such methods do not account for the important influence of environmental heterogeneity throughout species’ ranges. To address this shortcoming, we quantified the effects of environmental disturbances on species’ environmental niche space. Using the Australian 2019 and 2020 Black Summer fires as a case study, we applied a niche-centric approach to examine the potential impacts of these fires on 387 vertebrate species. We examined the utility of established and novel niche metrics to assess the potential impacts of large-scale disturbance events on species by comparing the potential effects of the fires as determined by our various niche measures to those derived from geographic-based measures of impact. We examined the quality of environmental space affected by the disturbance by quantifying the position in niche space where the disturbance occurred (center or margin), the uniqueness of the environmental space that was burned, and the degree to which the remaining, unburned portion of the niche differed from a species’ original prefire niche. There was limited congruence between the proportion of geographic and niche space affected, which showed that geographic-based approaches in isolation may have underestimated the impact of the fires for 56% of modeled species. For each species, when combined, these metrics provided a greater indication of postdisturbance recovery potential than geographic-based measures alone. Accordingly, the integration of niche-based analyses into conservation assessments following large-scale disturbance events will lead to a more nuanced understanding of potential impacts and guide more informed and effective conservation actions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere14277
Number of pages14
JournalConservation Biology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Apr 2024


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