Coastal urbanization and the integrity of estuarine waterbird communities: Threshold responses and the importance of scale

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Citation of Original Publication

William V. DeLuca, Colin E. Studds, Ryan S.King and Peter P. Marra, Coastal urbanization and the integrity of estuarine waterbird communities: Threshold responses and the importance of scale, Biological Conservation Volume 141, Issue 11, November 2008, Pages 2669-2678,


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Estuarine ecosystems are becoming increasingly altered by the concentration of human populations near the coastline, however a robust indicator of this change is lacking. We developed an index of waterbird community integrity (IWCI) and tested its sensitivity to anthropogenic activities within 28 watersheds and associated subestuaries of Chesapeake Bay, USA. The IWCI was used as a tool to gain insight into how human land use affects estuarine ecosystem integrity. Based on Akaike’s information criteria (AIC), a single variable model including percent developed land in estuarine watersheds was thirteen (2002) and twenty-six (2003) times more likely than models including percent agriculture and forest cover to fit the IWCI data. Consequently, we examined how suburban, urban, and total development shaped IWCI scores at three spatial scales: (1) watershed; (2) inverse-distance-weighted (IDW) watershed (land cover near the coastline weighted proportionally greater than that farther away); (3) local (land cover within 500 m of the coastline). Suburban, urban, and total development were all significant predictors of IWCI scores. Relationships were stronger at the IDW and local scales than at the whole watershed scale. Nonparametric changepoint analysis revealed a >80% probability of a threshold in IWCI scores when as little as 3.7% (2002) and 3.5% (2003) of the IDW land cover within the watershed was urban. Our results indicate that, of the landscape stressors we examined, development near estuarine coastlines is the primary stressor to estuarine waterbird community integrity, and that estuarine ecosystem integrity may be impaired by even extremely low levels of coastal urbanization.