Wildlife and landscape science research topics: agriculture, land use and ecosystems

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Agriculture, Land Use and Ecosystems

Aerial photograph showing mosaic of habitats in an agricultural landscape |  Photo: Celine Boutin, Environment Canada
Agricultural development alters the natural landscape and affects how species interact with their environment. Explaining patters in wildlife assemblages on altered landscapes allows scientists to better understand and assess risk of agricultural practices to native organisms.

While agricultural landscapes can be further altered through the regular application of herbicides and insecticides many areas of the landscape can remain of great conservation value to wildlife as diminished woodlands, wetlands and grasslands.

Researchers study habitats like woodlots, hedgerows, small wetlands, riparian habitats and fields to describe the biodiversity within the landscape, identify stressors that may affect wildlife populations and distribution, and examine how wildlife respond to these stressors.

Information is gathered from experiments in the Greenhouse and Growth Chambers, various field studies, aerial photographs, Landsat images and other forms of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

Research on agriculture, land use and ecosystems focuses on:

  • Plant community composition and assemblages in habitats within farming areas, including invasive species, and implications on different trophic levels
  • Describing the change and decline of plant diversity and biodiversity in agrarian landscapes, and the factors that affect these changes with emphasis on plants in non-crop habitats
  • Native species tolerance for disturbance resulting from stressors such as urbanization, farming, road infrastructure, and pesticide use
  • Impacts of long-term routine use of agricultural pesticides, predominantly herbicides, on plant species, biodiversity and land-use mosaics in agro-ecosystems
  • Effects of organic and conventional farming practices on the biodiversity of plants and other organisms within agricultural landscapes
  • Restoration potential of habitats impacted by anthropogenic stressors 
  • Importance of wetlands and riparian habitats in farmland areas
  • Effects of inorganic compounds on native plants
  • Methodologies for plant testing and risk assessment for national and international regulatory purposes

Findings are used to identify landscapes of high conservation value and help landowners and the agricultural industry establish, maintain and restore the biodiversity on these diverse landscapes.

Crop field bordered by a much diversified field margin and a hedgerow | Photo: Céline Boutin, Environment Canada

Recent studies in eastern Ontario have demonstrated that undisturbed woodlots should be considered of the highest conservation importance among woodlots that were once cleared for agricultural use and subsequently abandoned. These sites had the highest forest species richness, and had less invasive and exotic species richness than the woodlots that had been completely cleared in the past.

Recent studies have assessed and compared the abundance, richness and composition of plants and arthropods on conventional and organic farms in south-central Ontario, and sought to explain how the vegetation and landscape features in the local and surrounding areas accounted for differences in abundance and composition.

The study found that plant species differed in richness and composition between organic and conventional study sites. Fields and woody hedgerows near organic farms harboured more native and exotic plant species than conventional farms. Abundance of arthropods seemed to differ between farms but the species richness did not. At the larger scale, researchers found that farm type was a significant predictor of native plant richness. They also found that nearby habitat influenced arthropod composition, so it is important to take into account neighboring landscapes when describing biodiversity.

Experts on agriculture, land use and ecosystems

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