Task 19: Coastal connectivity: Evaluating the importance of marine resources to coastal carnivore communities across space and time

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The Nature Conservancy
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Ecology and Evolution

Coastlines are some of the most densely settled and developed areas of the globe; wild coastlines, where both marine and terrestrial ecosystems thus remain remarkably few and far between. Central California, especially Dangermond Preserve, contains just such a coastline, offering wild a unique opportunity to explore natural baselines of wild coastlines to better understand the importance of connectivity in natural systems. This research will provide insights to how human disturbance may disrupt critical patterns of nutrient movement, especially as vectored by large or sensitive species. Despite several decades of research on marine to terrestrial connectivity, there has been surprisingly little research on the importance of cross ecosystem connectivity in intact systems outside of islands, especially on connectivity beyond the immediate shorelines. This is despite the fact that there it is clear that cross ecosystem, exogenous nutrient movement can often equal or exceed endogenous nutrient cycling, and can dramatically change ecosystem processes, stability and resilience.  An integral feature of intact landscapes are large consumers (e.g. mountain lions, black bears, deer, and coyotes), animals with outsized influence on the habitat itself and the community of organisms within it. These animals, due to their size and diet, tend to require large unfragmented territories and are often vulnerable to human disturbance. In the intensely developed coastline of California, with ever increasing urban sprawl and roadways dissecting remaining wilderness, truly connected habitats for animals of this size are nearly absent.

This project will consist of a diet analysis of the large, terrestrial mammals along the Gaviota Coast, to determine if there is a marine influence in the diets of these animals. Previous research by our lab group at the Preserve has documented through camera footage the utilization of the beaches and marine resources by nearly every conceivable terrestrial vertebrate. Of special note are the large consumers, with footage captured of large carnivores, meso-carnivores, large herbivores, and omnivores all foraging on marine resources. The target animals in this study consist of carnivores (puma, coyote, bobcat), omnivores (black bear, feral hog), and an herbivore (mule deer). Other predators and/or omnivores (e.g. skunk, raccoon, fox) may also be included depending on abundance. The work that will be conducted in this project will include surveys collecting scat of terrestrial mammals and collection of hair through hair snares (this latter component is funded through a separate funding mechanism, but data will be collected simultaneously). There will be an initial “snapshot” field effort during the spring and summer of 2023 to both refine methods and determine a baseline diet across all meso- and large mammals. After this, the study will continue for a year to determine seasonal changes in diet, but only for (to-be-selected) focal species.