Spatial Ecology of a Vulnerable Species: Home Range Dynamics, Resource Use, and Genetic Differentiation of Eastern Spotted Skunks in Central Appalachia

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Virginia Tech


The spatial distribution of a species is not random or uniform across all landscapes, nor is it independent of resource availability and risk of predation. A key aspect in the study of wildlife ecology is understanding how a species evaluates its surroundings and selects habitat that offers advantages to survival and reproductive success. In theory, an individual should select habitat that offers adequate resources to meet its biological requirements and allows it to adjust its use of resources based on a variety of abiotic and biotic habitat factors. Relationships between wildlife populations and habitat characteristics are difficult to assess, yet identification and characterization of these relationships can improve delineation of limiting habitat factors needed for effective conservation and management. The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) is a small Mephitid (weasel family) that was once a fairly common furbearer throughout the central and southern United States, with annual range-wide harvests of over 100,000 individuals. In Virginia, the spotted skunk is classified as vulnerable, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this species has been rare or largely absent from the central and southern Appalachians over the last two decades. Limited knowledge of spotted skunk habitat associations in Virginia dictate the need for research on this species of concern. The aim of this study was to determine the associations of environmental characteristics ofwith spotted skunk habitat selection and genetic differentiation. I assessed first-order habitat selection by conducting an analysis of predicted occurrence at the landscape scale. Next, I assessed second- and third-order selection using resource utilization functions to determine habitat selection among, and within, home ranges. Further, I assessed fourth-order selection by identifying microhabitat selection and resource use at spotted skunk den site. Finally, I evaluated genetic diversity and population structure of spotted skunks in the Appalachian Mountains. I found that spotted skunk habitat is distributed in small, spatially disjunct patches and that movement, home range size, and resource selection are impacted by availability of habitat and the isolation and/or fragmentation of this suitable habitat. I found overall low genetic diversity and evidence of inbreeding within populations and geographic patterns of genetic differentiation with distinct subpopulations isolated by unsuitable landscape characteristics. Application of these results will contribute to more effective conservation of eastern spotted skunks throughout the Appalachian Mountains.



Eastern Spotted Skunk, Spilogale putorius, site occupancy, home range, resource selection, genetic differentiation