Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 953–973 | Cite as

When good animals love restored habitat in bad neighborhoods: ecological traps for eastern cottontails in agricultural landscapes

  • Julia A. Nawrocki
  • Robert L. SchooleyEmail author
  • Michael P. Ward
Original Paper


Large-scale restoration programs have been implemented worldwide to counteract habitat loss and fragmentation from expansion and intensification of agriculture. These agri-environment programs create habitat patches imbedded in an agricultural matrix. The assumption is these patches benefit wildlife and that individuals either avoid agricultural fields or use them to increase their fitness. We selected eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) as a focal species on restored grasslands in Illinois, USA to assess survival and to determine if maladaptive habitat selection for agricultural fields could create an ecological trap. We also investigated whether a mismatch between real and perceived predation risk could explain their habitat selection. We radiotracked 95 cottontails and estimated habitat-specific survival using known-fate models, and measured habitat selection using Manly’s standardized selection ratios. We also assessed perceived predation risk with giving-up density experiments. Survival of cottontails was higher in restored grasslands relative to agricultural and developed areas. Habitat selection did not reflect this spatial variation in mortality risk, however, when crops were present on the landscape. Agricultural lands created an equal-preference trap. Cottontails did not accurately assess predation risk; they did not recognize that agricultural fields were risky. This mismatch could be due to cottontails’ emphasis on protecting themselves from avian predators rather than from coyotes (Canis latrans), which currently are their main predator. Our novel study demonstrates how dynamic landscape context can create ecological traps. Such unexpected outcomes can reduce the conservation benefits of restoration programs.


Agroecosystem Ecological trap Predation risk Restoration Survival Sylvilagus floridanus 



Funding was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program) through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. We thank S. Beyer, S. Chow, C. Dempsey, and L. Kelter for field assistance, C. Miller for providing cottontail trend data, and B. Berry for collecting the camera trap data. We are grateful to T. J. Benson, A. Ahlers, T. Lyons, and M. Whitby for help with statistical analysis. E. Heske, B. Robertson, and anonymous reviewer provided helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10531_2019_1704_MOESM1_ESM.docx (92 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 90 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental SciencesUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA

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