Predicting habitat choice after rapid environmental change

Philip H. Crowley, Pete C. Trimmer, Orr Spiegel, Sean M. Ehlman, William S. Cuello, Andrew Sih

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Decisions made while searching for settlement sites (e.g., nesting, oviposition) often have major fitness implications. Despite numerous case studies, we lack theory to explain why some species are thriving while others are making poor habitat choices after environmental change. We develop a model to predict (1) which kinds of environmental change have larger, negative effects on fitness, (2) how evolutionary history affects susceptibility to environmental change, and (3) how much lost fitness can be recovered via readjustment after environmental change. We model the common scenario where animals search an otherwise inhospitable matrix, encountering habitats of varying quality and settling when finding a habitat better than a threshold quality level. We consider decisions and fitness before environmental change, immediately following change (assuming that animals continue to use their previously adaptive decision rules), and after optimal readjustment (e.g., via learning or evolution). We find that decreases in survival per time step searching and declines in habitat quality or availability generally have stronger negative effects than reduced season duration. Animals that were adapted to good conditions remained choosy after conditions declined and thus suffered more from environmental change than those adapted to poor conditions. Readjustment recovered much of the fitness lost through a reduction in average habitat quality but recovered much less following reductions in habitat availability or survival while searching. Our model offers novel predictions for empiricists to test as well as suggestions for prioritizing alternative mitigation steps.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)619-632
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 May 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptive behavior
  • Habitat loss
  • Habitat selection
  • Human-induced rapid environmental change (HIREC)
  • Natal dispersal
  • Search costs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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