Stepping-stone Habitats

Stepping stone habitats for habitat connectivity. From Nguyen et al., 2021.

“Stepping-stone habitats” is a conservation concept that involves creating interconnected patches of habitat within a landscape, allowing wildlife to move between larger, more stable habitats. The idea is to mitigate the negative effects of habitat fragmentation, which occurs when natural habitats are broken into smaller, isolated pieces. Habitat fragmentation can result from human activities such as urbanisation, agriculture, and infrastructure development. 

Name of NbS

Stepping-stone Habitats

Type of NbS

Created or constructed ecosystems (using vegetation), Ecosystem restoration

Location

It can work in areas that are largely fragmented to support biodiversity conservation. E.g. urban areas, agricultural landscapes, aquatic ecosystems, and coastal areas. 

Waikato Regional Council (2023), Pekapeka (bat) monitoring 2022-2023, retrieved from 
https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/628cd9d5e4ba45d0a0d9cc6d563fb86e#ref-n-emFYBf

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

The overarching principles of interconnectedness, respect for the environment, and sustainable resource management are often found in various Indigenous knowledge frameworks within Te Moananui Oceania. E.g. in Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a strong connection to the whenua (land) and a holistic worldview that recognises the interdependence of all living things meaning that disruptions to one part of the environment can have cascading effects (Paul and Kake, 2019). Preserving and connecting habitats contributes to the well-being of the mauri (life force or essence that exists within all living things and the natural environment) of the land and its inhabitants (Paul and Kake, 2019). Stepping stone habitats promote whanaungatanga (building a sense of family connection) between fragmented landscapes, people and surrounding ecologies, and recognise the relationships between different ecosystems, species, and communities, promoting a holistic approach to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration (Harmsworth and Awatere, 2013).

Climate change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Freshwater flooding
  • Increased pests or spread of weeds
  • Indirect health
  • social
  • cultural climate change impacts
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Soil erosion
  • Urban heat island effect.

Stepping-stone habitats address biomass cover loss by planting native vegetation, promoting regrowth, and increasing overall vegetation density. By preserving and enhancing natural habitats through stepping-stone habitats, these areas contribute to restoring and generating other ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination, and habitat provision for various species (Van Rossum and Triest, 2012). They also contribute to improved air quality, and filter pollutants from the air, including particulate matter and harmful gases by increasing green cover in urban and degraded areas. Planting native vegetation helps prevent soil erosion, improve soil structure, and enhance nutrient cycling. Trees provide shade, reduce surface temperatures through evapotranspiration, and create a cooler microclimate, counteracting the heat island effect and improving overall urban resilience to climate change (MacKinnon et al., 2023).

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Disaster risk reduction
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Rights / empowerment / equality / tino rangatiratanga
  • Water security and quality

Stepping-stone habitats contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, preserving native flora and fauna, which is significant not only for ecological reasons but also for cultural and spiritual connections to the land. Access to biodiverse and natural spaces enhances opportunities for recreational activities and cultural practices. People can engage in activities like bird watching, traditional harvesting, or cultural ceremonies, fostering a connection between communities and the natural environment. The diverse and interconnected habitats provide a buffer against the impacts of climate change, helping ecosystems and communities adapt to changing conditions. Access to nature has been linked to improved mental and physical health, reduced stress, and enhanced overall well-being (Dearborn and Kark, 2010). Recognising and respecting Indigenous knowledge, cultural practices, and traditional rights in the creation of stepping-stone habitats contributes to cultural empowerment. Green spaces and stepping-stone habitats can promote social equality by providing equal access to natural environments.

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Aesthetic value / artistic inspiration
  • Biological control (regulation of pests and disease)
  • Climate regulation
  • Creation of a sense of place
  • Cultural diversity and history
  • Disturbance prevention (erosion, storm damage, flooding etc.)
  • Education and knowledge
  • Fixation of solar energy
  • Fresh water
  • Genetic resources (diversity)
  • Habitat provision
  • Mana (pride)
  • whakamana (empowerment)
  • tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty)
  • Medicinal resources
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Pollination
  • Purification (of water, soil, air) Recreation and tourism,
  • Relaxation and psychological wellbeing
  • Social justice and equity
  • Soil building
  • Species maintenance
  • Spiritual and religious inspiration.

Stepping-stone habitats offer a range of ecological benefits that extend beyond biodiversity conservation goals. Vegetation in stepping-stone habitats contributes to climate regulation by sequestering carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing shade (MacKinnon et al., 2021). Moreover, they help purify water by filtering pollutants, stabilise soils to prevent erosion and contribute to air quality by absorbing pollutants. They also contribute to soil building by enhancing soil structure, preventing erosion, and promoting the accumulation of organic matter.

Stepping stone habitats offer essential living spaces for a diverse array of flora and fauna, contributing to overall biodiversity and supporting species that are regionally or locally important (Lynch, 2019). Native plants support pollinators, including bees and butterflies, contributing to the pollination of plants and the maintenance of diverse ecosystems. These habitats support the maintenance of species populations by providing connectivity, reducing isolation, and facilitating gene flow among populations (MacKinnon et al., 2021).

Stepping stone habitats enhance the visual appeal of landscapes, providing diverse and dynamic ecosystems that can inspire artistic expression and appreciation for nature. They also provide valuable educational opportunities for learning about local ecosystems, biodiversity, and conservation. They contribute to cultural and spiritual values, instilling a sense of pride, empowerment, and sovereignty within local communities, especially in Indigenous contexts. Access to natural environments provides ecotourism, contributing to local economies, opportunities for relaxation and psychological wellbeing, offering a respite from urban stresses. 

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Technical requirements

The implementation and maintenance of stepping-stone habitats involves several technical requirements that may vary based on the specific ecological context and goals of the project. Below are three key general considerations:

Habitat design and planning

Conduct a thorough ecological assessment of the landscape to identify suitable locations for stepping-stones by considering factors such as existing vegetation, topography, soil types, water availability, and landscape connectivity (Lepczyk et al., 2017).

Vegetation and habitat restoration

Choose native plant species that are appropriate for the local ecosystem and provide habitat for target wildlife (MacKinnon et al., 2021). Design the stepping-stone habitats to include a variety of vegetation heights, structures, and microhabitats to accommodate different species and their life stages (MacKinnon et al., 2021). If applicable, implement waterway restoration measures to enhance the health and functionality of streams or rivers within the stepping-stone habitats. Moreover, it is important to implement and maintain predator control measures, including trapping, bait stations, or other methods in some places (Nguyen et al., 2021). 

Monitoring and adaptive management:

Establish baseline data for existing wildlife and biodiversity in the area to evaluate the success of the project over time. Moreover, regularly monitor the presence and abundance of target species to assess the effectiveness of the stepping-stones in facilitating wildlife movement. It is important to engage with local communities, landowners, and stakeholders throughout the planning and implementation process to encourage their active involvement in habitat maintenance.

Issues and Barriers

Implementing stepping-stone habitats in Te Moananui Oceania can be influenced by local ecological, cultural, and socio-economic factors. Ongoing urbanisation and agricultural expansion can lead to habitat fragmentation, limiting the availability of suitable areas for stepping-stones. Predation by introduced species can hinder the success of stepping-stone habitats, especially for ground-nesting birds and other vulnerable wildlife (Nguyen et al., 2021). 

Climate change can impact the distribution and behaviour of species, affecting the effectiveness of stepping-stone habitats. Changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and sea levels may disrupt ecological connectivity.

Adequate funding is crucial for the establishment and maintenance of stepping-stone habitats. Regulatory frameworks and land-use policies may not always prioritise or support the creation of stepping-stone habitats. Policies may need to be adapted to encourage conservation measures (Dearborn and Kark, 2010).

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Opportunities

In Te Moananui Oceania, the utilisation of stepping-stone habitats presents several opportunities for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration, and cultural enhancement. These habitats provide an opportunity to conserve and protect endemic species that may be threatened by habitat fragmentation and offer a chance to restore and rehabilitate degraded landscapes. These habitats may contribute to landscape connectivity at regional and landscape scales, allowing for the movement of species across larger areas and supporting biodiversity (MacKinnon et al., 2021). Stepping-stone habitats can serve as a nature-based solution to enhance ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change. Connected habitats along waterways provide an opportunity to restore riparian zones, contributing to improved water quality, benefiting aquatic ecosystems, and enhancing the overall health of rivers and streams (Nguyen et al., 2021). They also can become valuable urban green spaces for humans.

Stepping-stone habitats can incorporate Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices and can become educational and recreational assets by offering opportunities for ecotourism, nature-based recreation and environmental education programmes (Dearborn and Kark, 2010). 

Stepping stone habitat projects provide opportunities for collaborative research between scientists, conservationists, and local communities. These projects often align with global conservation priorities and increase the potential for accessing international funding and grants dedicated to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration.

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Financial case

The cost of implementing and maintaining stepping-stone habitats can vary widely based on several factors, including the size of the project, the geographical location, the level of restoration needed, and the specific goals. Additionally, long-term maintenance costs should be considered, including the costs associated with ongoing predator control, vegetation management, and community engagement efforts. While the ecological benefits are often challenging to quantify in monetary terms, they contribute significantly to the overall well-being of ecosystems and human societies. The economic benefits, particularly those related to tourism and property values, may be more tangible and measurable in monetary terms. However, the holistic value of stepping-stone habitats lies in their ability to balance ecological integrity with cultural, social, and economic considerations.

References
  • Dearborn, D. C., & Kark, S. (2010). Motivations for conserving urban biodiversity. Conservation biology24(2), 432-440.
  • Harmsworth, G. R., & Awatere, S. (2013). Indigenous Māori knowledge and perspectives of ecosystems. Ecosystem services in New Zealand—conditions and trends. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand, 274-286.
  • Lepczyk, C. A., Aronson, M. F., Evans, K. L., Goddard, M. A., Lerman, S. B., & MacIvor, J. S. (2017). Biodiversity in the city: fundamental questions for understanding the ecology of urban green spaces for biodiversity conservation. BioScience67(9), 799-807.
  • Lynch, A. J. (2019). Creating effective urban greenways and stepping-stones: four critical gaps in habitat connectivity planning research. Journal of Planning Literature34(2), 131-155.
  • MacKinnon, M., Pedersen Zari, M., & Brown, D. K. (2021). Architecture as Habitat: Enhancing Urban Ecosystem Services Using Building Envelopes. Advances in Environmental and Engineering Research2(4), 1-20.
  • MacKinnon, M., Pedersen Zari, M., & Brown, D. K. (2023). Improving urban habitat connectivity for native birds: using least-cost path analyses to design urban green infrastructure networks. Land12(7), 1456.
  • Nguyen, T. T., Meurk, C., Benavidez, R., Jackson, B., & Pahlow, M. (2021). The effect of blue-green infrastructure on habitat connectivity and biodiversity: a case study in the Ōtākaro/Avon River catchment in Christchurch, New Zealand. Sustainability13(12), 6732.
  • Paul, J., & Kake, J. (2019). Integrating Kaupapa Maori and Te Aranga urban design principles into the development of policy to inform better design processes. Historic Environment, 31(3), 64-74.Van Rossum, F., & Triest, L. (2012). Stepping-stone populations in linear landscape elements increase pollen dispersal between urban forest fragments. Plant Ecology and Evolution145(3), 332-340.