Line Holm Andersen, Cino Pertoldi, Peter Sunde, Volker Loeschcke, Irene Pellegrino
The agricultural scene has changed over the past decades, resulting in a declining population trend in many species. It is therefore important to determine the factors that the individual species depend on in order to understand their decline. The landscape changes have also resulted in habitat fragmentation, turning once continuous populations into metapopulations. It is thus increasingly important to estimate both the number of individuals it takes to create a genetically viable population and the population trend. Here, population viability analysis and habitat suitability modeling were used to estimate population viability and future prospects across Europe of the Little Owl Athene noctua, a widespread species associated with agricultural landscapes. The results show a high risk of population declines over the coming 100 years, especially toward the north of Europe, whereas populations toward the southeastern part of Europe have a greater probability of persistence. In order to be considered genetically viable, individual populations must count 1,000–30,000 individuals. As Little Owl populations of several countries count <30,000, and many isolated populations in northern Europe count <1,000 individuals, management actions resulting in exchange of individuals between populations or even countries are probably necessary to prevent losing <1% genetic diversity over a 100-year period. At a continental scale, a habitat suitability analysis suggested Little Owl to be affected positively by increasing temperatures and urban areas, whereas an increased tree cover, an increasing annual rainfall, grassland, and sparsely vegetated areas affect the presence of the owl negatively. However, the low predictive power of the habitat suitability model suggests that habitat suitability might be better explained at a smaller scale.
Using population viability analysis and habitat suitability analysis, the viability, habitat preference, and future prospects of the European population of Little Owl Athene noctua were investigated. Populations toward the north of Europe are most likely to face decline within the next 100 years, and populations counting fewer than 1,000 individuals are likely not genetically viable.