DOI: 10.1111/brv.13073 ISSN: 1464-7931

Overcoming confusion and stigma in habitat fragmentation research

Federico Riva, Nicola Koper, Lenore Fahrig
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


Anthropogenic habitat loss is widely recognized as a primary environmental concern. By contrast, debates on the effects of habitat fragmentation persist. To facilitate overcoming these debates, here we: (i) review the state of the literature on habitat fragmentation, finding widespread confusion and stigma; (ii) identify consequences of this for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management; and (iii) suggest ways in which research can move forward to resolve these problems.

Confusion is evident from the 25 most‐cited fragmentation articles published between 2017 and 2021. These articles use five distinct concepts of habitat fragmentation, only one of which clearly distinguishes habitat fragmentation from habitat area and other factors (‘fragmentation per se’). Stigmatization is evident from our new findings that fragmentation papers are more charged with negative sentiments when compared to papers from other subfields in the environmental sciences, and that fragmentation papers with more negative sentiments are cited more.

While most empirical studies of habitat fragmentation per se find neutral or positive effects on species and biodiversity outcomes, which implies that small habitat patches have a high cumulative value, confusion and stigma in reporting and discussing such results have led to suboptimal habitat protection policy. For example, government agencies, conservation organizations, and land trusts impose minimum habitat patch sizes on habitat protection. Given the high cumulative value of small patches, such policies mean that many opportunities for conservation are being missed.

Our review highlights the importance of reducing confusion and stigma in habitat fragmentation research. To this end, we propose implementing study designs in which multiple sample landscapes are selected across independent gradients of habitat amount and fragmentation, measured as patch density. We show that such designs are possible for forest habitat across Earth's biomes. As such study designs are adopted, and as language becomes more precise, we expect that confusion and stigma in habitat fragmentation research will dissipate. We also expect important breakthroughs in understanding the situations where effects of habitat fragmentation per se are neutral, positive, or negative, and the reasons for these differences. Ultimately this will improve efficacy of area‐based conservation policies, to the benefit of biodiversity and people.

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