The word habitat, in the sense of habitat preservation, often refers to two different but related concepts. Population ecologists define habitat as the places where individuals of a single population or species live. Community and ecosystem ecologists, however, extend the definition to the places where certain assemblages of species live. The latter definition is most commonly used by the public, but it is also what many scientists refer to when discussing habitat types or habitat maps.
Habitat types are frequently characterized by their primary structural features. In terrestrial areas, the dominant vegetation as well as other environmental features like elevation, rainfall, temperature, and soil type define the habitat. In freshwater and marine areas, ben-thic, or bottom, habitat types are defined features such as aquatic vegetation, corals, or sand flats in addition to other environmental variables such as water depth and wave exposure. Pelagic, or open water, habitats are more often defined exclusively by the physical and chemical properties of the water column.
Because of these overlapping meanings of habitat, habitat preservation may target areas needed by an individual species of concern, a particular vulnerable habitat type for a rare assemblage of species (such as undisturbed beach dunes), or some combination of habitat types to maintain the function of an ecosystem. Given the often limited funds available for habitat preservation, determining which habitats to preserve and at what scale is a complex task because there may be multiple priorities and objectives, some of which may conflict.
The efficient design of a habitat preservation plan consequently requires clear specification and prioritization of objectives as well as scientific evaluation of the different options for achieving the goals. In many cases, there are so many competing options for protecting different combinations of habitats that computer programs are required to compare the options and find the specific plan that is likely to be most effective at the lowest cost. The following sections focus on three general approaches for preserving habitats for species, communities, and ecosystems: identifying critical areas, considering the size of habitat areas, and using corridors to connect disjunct portions of habitat.
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