Circuitscape Applications

Circuitscape has rapidly become the most widely used connectivity analysis package in the world. It is used by numerous state, federal, and local agencies in the USA, and by government ministries and NGOs for conservation planning on six continents. It routinely appears in journals like PNAS, Nature Genetics, Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecology Letters, Landscape Ecology, Evolution, Heredity, Bioscience, Molecular Ecology, Conservation Biology, and many others. In 2015 alone, Circuitscape appeared in 80 peer-reviewed journal articles—a 40% increase from 2014—plus dozens of dissertations, reports, and book chapters.

A Sampling of Circuitscape Applications from Around the World

Wildlife corridor design

Within the Nature Conservancy, connectivity analyses using Circuitscape are being used in planning exercises affecting tens of millions of dollars for land acquisition, restoration, and management. Other NGOs, whether small ones like the Snow Leopard Conservancy or large ones like the Wildlife Conservation Society, are using Circuitscape to set conservation priorities. Here are some recent examples of research in this area.

  • Multispecies connectivity planning in Borneo (Brodie et al. 2015).
  • Connectivity for pumas in Arizona and New Mexico (Dickson et al. 2013).
  • Large landscape planning across Ontario, Canada (Bowman and Cordes 2015).
  • Connectivity prioritization for gibbons (Vasudev and Fletcher 2015).
  • Corridors for tigers in India (Joshi et al. 2013, Dutta et al. 2015).
  • Connectivity for Amur leopards in China (Jiang et al. 2015).
  • Trans-boundary conservation of Persian leopards in Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (Farhadiniaa et al. 2015).
  • Multi-scale connectivity planning in Australia (Lechner et al. 2015).
  • Wall-to-wall’ methods that don’t require core areas to connect (Anderson et al. 2012, 2014, Pelletier et al. 2014).

Dutta et al. (2015) combined Circuitscape with least-cost corridor methods to map pinch points within corridors connecting protected areas for tigers in central India. Areas with high current flow are most important for tiger movements and keeping the network connected.

Landscape genetics

Landscape genetics is the study of how landscape pattern (the distribution of suitable habitat, barriers, etc.) affects gene flow and genetic differentiation among plant and animal populations. Circuitscape is widely used in this field, and has been combined with genetic data to show

  • the resilience of montane rainforest lizards to past climate change in the Australian tropics (Bell et al. 2010);
  • how oil palm plantations isolate squirrel monkeys in Costa Rica, and where corridors of native trees could reconnect populations (Blair et al. 2012);
  • how the pattern of climatically stable habitat structures genetics of canyon live oaks (Ortego et al. 2014);
  • how genetics and connectivity models can be combined to design Indian tiger corridors (Yumnam et al. 2014); 
  • how urban trees facilitate animal gene flow (Munshi-South 2012);
  • how climate change and montane refugia have structured salamander populations in southern California (Devitt et al. 2013);
  • the effects of landscape change on movement among prairie dog colonies (Sackett et al. 2012); and
  • how landscape features influence genetic connectivity for dozens of species, from songbirds in British Columbia (Adams et al. 2016) to army ants in Panama (Pérez-Espona et al. 2012). 

Movement ecology

Circuit theory can also be used to predict movements of animals and how these affect overall population connectivity. As with landscape genetics, this application is tightly tied to conservation planning. Examples include

  • movements of African wild dogs and cheetahs in South Africa (Jackson et al. 2016);
  • wolverine dispersal in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (McClure et al. 2016);
  • how periodic flooding affects connectivity for amphibians in Australia (Bishop-Taylor et al. 2015);
  • predicting where mitigating road impacts on connectivity would reduce wildlife mortality in France (Girardet et al. 2015) and Canada (Koen et al. 2014);
  • movement and gap crossing behavior of forest interior songbirds (St. Louis et al. 2014); and
  • how local abundance and dispersal scale up to affect metapopulation persistence and community stability (Brodie et al. 2016). 

Circuit theory is being used to mitigate road impacts on wildlife and improve driver safety in at least six countries. (a) Circuit theory (implemented using Graphab) outperformed other connectivity models for predicting vehicle collisions with roe deer in France (Girardet et al. 2015). (b) A wall-to-wall connectivity map created using Circuitscape was highly correlated with road mortality for amphibians and reptiles and habitat use by fishers in eastern Ontario, Canada (from Koen et al. 2014). Similar methods are now being used across Ontario and in many other parts of Canada. 

Connectivity for climate change

Predicting important areas for range shifts under climate change is an exciting new application of Circuitscape. One of the most important ways species have responded to past climatic changes has been to shift their ranges to track suitable climates. Rapid warming projected for the next century means many species and populations will need to move even faster than in the past or face extinction. Many species are already moving in response to rapid warming, but they are encountering barriers—like roads, agricultural areas, and cities—that weren’t present in the past. In order for species to maintain population connectivity and the ability to adapt to climate change, we need to identify and conserve important movement routes.  Here are some ways Circuitscape can be used to address this need:

  • Hodgson et al. (2012) showed how circuit theory can be used to design landscapes that promote rapid range shifts.
  • Lawler et al. (2013) used Circuitscape to project movements of nearly 3000 species in response to climate change across the Western Hemisphere. See an animation of their results here.
  • Razgour (2015) combined species distributions, climate projections, genetic data, and Circuitscape to predict range shift pathways for bats in Iberia.
  • New methods connecting natural lands to those that have similar projected future climates (Littlefield et al. in review) and connecting across climate gradients (McRae et al. in 2016) are in active development.

Projected climate-driven range shifts of 2903 species in response to climate change using Circuitscape. Arrows represent the direction of modelled movements from unsuitable climates to suitable climates via routes that avoid human land uses. From Lawler et al. (2013). Explore the full animation of these results here.

New applications: infectious disease, fire, and agriculture

Circuitscape is breaking into new areas like epidemiology, invasive species spread, archaeology, and fire management. Examples include
  • how road networks drive HIV spread in Africa (Tatem et al. 2012);
  • spread of invasive insects, including disease-carrying mosquitos (Cowley et al. 2015, Andraca- Gómez et al. 2015, Medley et al. 2014);
  • understanding why species reintroductions succeed or fail (Ziółkowska et al. 2016);
  • spread of a disease that is threatening rice production in Africa (Trovão et al. 2015);
  • spread of rabies (Barton et al. 2010, Rioux Paquette et al. 2014);
  • how climate and habitat fragmentation drive Lyme disease at its range limit (Simon et al. 2014).
  • fuel connectivity and wildfire risk (Gray and Dickson 2015, 2016); and
  • strategic fuel breaks to protect sage-grouse habitat from wildfire (Welch et al. 2015).

Fire likelihood across Arizona’s lower Sonoran Desert, using Circuitscape to model fuel connectivity. Areas with high predicted fire risk corresponded with burned area data showing where wildfires occurred from 2000 to 2012 (Gray and Dickson 2015). This method has been extended to evaluate fuel treatments where invasive cheatgrass is increasing fire (Gray and Dickson 2016).

Welch et al. (2015) used a similar analysis to identify strategic areas for fuel breaks to protect greater sage-grouse habitat.

How Circuitscape Complements other Models

Circuitscape isn’t the right modeling method for every connectivity application, but it is strongly complementary to others, and often works well in conjunction with other methods. For example, McClure et al. (2016) compared least-cost paths and Circuitscape for predicting elk and wolverine movements using GPS-collared animals. They found that Circuitscape outperformed least-cost paths for predicting wolverine dispersal, but slightly underperformed them for elk. This makes sense, because circuit models reflect random exploration of the landscape, and dispersing juvenile wolverines are making exploratory movements since they do not have perfect knowledge. Elk, on the other hand, are following routes established over generations, and have much better knowledge of the best pathways.

Hybrid approaches

New hybrid methods are taking advantage of both circuit and least-cost methods. In their tiger study, Dutta et al. (2015) combined least-cost corridors and Circuitscape to map the most important and vulnerable connectivity areas connecting tiger reserves. And in their work on invasive mosquitoes, Medley et al. (2014) found that circuit and least-cost-based analyses complemented each other, with differing strengths at different movement scales and in different contexts. Using the two models in concert gave the most insight into mosquito movement and spread. Other papers that combine methods, taking advantage of different strengths for different processes and scales, include Rayfield et al. (2015), Lechner et al. (2015), Fagan et al. (2016), and Ziółkowska et al. (2016).

Future Plans

For more about Circuitscape and our plans for future development, please see this white paper.


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