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Does space use behavior relate to exploration in a species that is rapidly expanding its geographic range?
Explore and move: a key to success in a changing world?Recommended by Blandine Doligez based on reviews by Joe Nocera, Marion Nicolaus and Laure Cauchard
Changes in the spatial range of many species are one of the major consequences of the profound alteration of environmental conditions due to human activities. Some species expand, sometimes spectacularly during invasions; others decline; some shift. Because these changes result in local biodiversity loss (whether local species go extinct or are replaced by colonizing ones), understanding the factors driving spatial range dynamics appears crucial to predict biodiversity dynamics. Identifying the factors that shape individual movement is a main step towards such understanding. The study described in this preregistration (McCune et al. 2020) falls within this context by testing possible links between individual exploration behaviour and movements related to daily space use in an avian study model currently rapidly expanding, the great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus).
Movement and exploration: which direction(s) for the link between exploration and dispersal?
Individuals are known to differ in their tendency to explore the environment (Réale et al. 2007; Wolf and Weissing 2012) and therefore in their motivation to move. Accordingly, exploration has been shown to relate to dispersal behaviour, i.e. movements between breeding sites (Dingemanse et al. 2003, Le Galliard et al. 2011, Rasmussen and Belk 2012; reviews in Cote et al. 2010, Ronce et al. 2012). Yet, the mechanisms underlying this link often remain unclear, due to the correlative nature of the data. A classical assumption is that dispersers may benefit from a high capacity to explore, allowing them to familiarize quicker with their new environment once reached, thus alleviating dispersal costs (Bonte et al. 2012). The association between dispersal and exploration would in this case result from selection for this combination of traits (Ronce et al. 2012), even though dispersal event itself may be independent from (and precede the effect of) exploration behaviour. Alternatively (but not exclusively), dispersal may simply be the final outcome of longer movements by individuals exploring larger ranges (Badyaev et al. 1996, Schliehe-Diecks et al. 2012). In the absence of easy ways to manipulate dispersal behaviour, on the one hand, and exploration tendency, on the other hand, investigating detailed, small-scale individual movements in relation to exploration should thus shed light on which processes may yield the observed relations between exploration as an individual personality trait and large-scale, long-term movements, such as dispersal, underlying species range dynamics.
In this project, the exploration behaviour of grackles will be measured in controlled conditions using standardized tests in captivity (McCune et al. 2019) before individuals are released and their daily space use behaviour will then be measured using remote tracking over long time periods (McCune et al. 2020). Importantly, these coupled measures will be obtained for individuals captured in three different populations: within the historical range of the species, in the middle of its expanding range and at the edge of the range (McCune et al. 2020). Therefore, the project will test (i) whether daily space use of individuals is linked to their intrinsic exploration tendency and (ii) whether space use differs between individuals from different populations along the expanding range. The preregistration echoes a complementary project by the same team that will focus on exploration and test (iii) whether exploration tendency differs between individuals from these different populations. Taken together, these three analyses will therefore provide solid background information to assess the role of exploration in the individuals’ decisions leading to movement and range dynamics in this species.
As underlined in the preregistration, previous studies addressing the links between individual exploration behaviour and movements have mostly focused on dispersal. A first type of studies have (as will be done here) measured exploration behaviour of individuals, often in captivity (Dingemanse et al. 2003, Korsten et al. 2013) but also in the wild (Rasmussen and Belk 2012, Debeffe et al. 2013), and related these measures to subsequent dispersal behaviour. The (often implicit) underlying assumption is that more exploratory individuals will be more likely to move further, explore different habitats and thus end up breeding farther than less explorative ones. In other words, exploration tendency precedes and drives dispersal. Sometimes, exploratory behaviour is measured on individuals of known dispersal status, i.e. after the dispersal event (Hoset et al. 2011), in which case selection for certain exploration phenotypes among dispersers may already have occurred. Besides this first approach, another type of studies have measured ‘exploration’ behaviour under the form of prospecting movements of individuals and linked these movements to subsequent dispersal (often in the context of habitat selection). While these studies were in the past based on direct thus potentially biased observations (Reed et al. 1999), they now rely more and more on technological advances using (miniaturized) remote tracking devices (Ponchon et al. 2013) that provide far more complete and unbiased movement data, and sometimes also complementary measures of individuals’ internal state. In this case, the implicit assumption is that individuals prospecting farther and/or in more habitat patches will be more likely to settle in a site located farther away from their departure site, because of a more exhaustive sampling of possible sites allowing individuals to identify higher-quality sites (Badyaev et al. 1996). In other words, exploration tendency would not directly lead to higher movements or longer distances, but would allow individuals to optimize their habitat choice among more numerous options, thus leading to an increased dispersal probability or distance; the relation between exploration and dispersal would thus be indirect. Prospecting studies address more closely the underlying mechanisms of movement; however, they cannot easily separate intrinsic individual exploratory tendency from the prospecting movements themselves, with potential feedback effects of the information already gathered on future exploration of other sites or patches, thus on subsequent movements.
By focusing on individual daily space use movements as a mechanistic approach to understand large-scale movements potentially involved in colonization and range expansion, the grackle study described in this preregistration (McCune et al. 2020) will thus contribute to bridge the knowledge gaps between exploration and dispersal. By linking exploration measures obtained from a battery of standardized tests conducted in controlled conditions to individual daily space use and movements recorded in the wild, the grackle project is set in between previous studies addressing the links between exploration and dispersal: it will document exploration in a separate and independent context with respect to the movements themselves, and it will use a mechanistic view of detailed movements by the same individuals in the wild to explore potential implications for dispersal and range expansion. Testing differences between the three study populations over the species range will indeed inform about potential large-scale, population implications of among-individual variation in the link between exploration and movements. Because this study will only measure already settled adult individuals whose previous history is unknown, there will nevertheless be no direct possible exploration of the link with either previous or subsequent dispersal behaviour. Thus, the potential links studied here relate more directly to post-dispersal benefits of exploration for an optimal exploitation of the new environment. Yet, if exploration is a life-long personality trait linked to daily movement patterns, it may also relate to natal dispersal movements in young individuals.
Evolutionary and conservation perspectives
If the results of the project reveal that exploration tendency and daily space use movements are indeed linked, and that individuals from populations across the species range differ in these traits, new questions will emerge. A first question would be whether such among-individual differences are at the origin of range expansion or rather one of its consequences since, again, we deal with correlative data here. In other words, individuals may differ in exploration tendency, and this may confer them different ability to move around, find and colonize new habitats; or individuals may show differences in exploration following arrival in a new habitat, either because more explorative individuals gain fitness benefits and are thus selected, or because of behavioural plasticity and post-colonization adjustment of exploration behaviour when facing new ecological and social conditions in the new environment. Another open question relates to the link between daily space use and dispersal: is dispersal a by-product of higher daily movements that allow individuals to discover new favorable places where to settle? Exploring this link could involve measuring just fledged individuals before natal dispersal occurs and/or individuals chosen according to their own dispersal history, and this would then imply long-term population monitoring as an efficient (but constraining) tool to address such questions. Finally, assessing the fitness consequences of the link between exploration and space use behaviour, and whether these consequences differ between populations along the range expansion, would also be needed to understand the contribution of this link to the invasion success of this species.
The study model chosen for this project is a rapidly expanding species. Importantly, however, and as emphasized in the preregistration, documenting links between exploration and daily space use patterns as well as differences between populations with different trajectories can provide crucial information in general to understand population persistence in response to global climate and landscape changes, both regarding invasion ability or extinction risk. The information should be key to assess the probability that a species may decline, persist or expand in studies addressing biodiversity and community dynamics in a changing world.
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