University of Wisconsin–Madison
Spatial Analysis For Conservation and Sustainability

Winter Habitat Indices (WHIs) for the contiguous US and their relationship with winter bird diversity

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The seasonal dynamics of snow cover strongly affect ecosystem processes and winter habitat, making them an important driver of terrestrial biodiversity patterns. Snow cover data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Aqua and Terra satellites can capture these dynamics over large spatiotemporal scales, allowing for the development of indices with specific application in ecological research and predicting biodiversity. Here, our primary objective was to derive winter habitat indices (WHIs) from MODIS that quantify snow season length, snow cover variability, and the prevalence of frozen ground without snow as a proxy for subnivium conditions. We calculated the WHIs for the full snow year (Aug-Jul) and winter months (Dec-Feb) across the contiguous US from 2003/04 to 2017/18 and validated them with ground-based data from 797 meteorological stations. To demonstrate the potential of the WHIs for biodiversity assessments, we modeled their relationships with winter bird species richness derived from eBird observations. The WHIs had clear spatial patterns reflecting both altitudinal and latitudinal gradients in snow cover. Snow season length was generally longer at higher latitudes and elevations, while snow cover variability and frozen ground without snow were highest across low elevations of the mid latitudes. Variability in the WHIs was largely driven by elevation in the West and by latitude in the East. Snow season length and frozen ground without snow were most accurately mapped, and had correlations with station data across all years of 0.91 and 0.85, respectively. Snow cover variability was accurately mapped for winter (r = 0.79), but not for the full snow year (r = 􀀀 0.21). The model containing all three WHIs used to predict winter bird species richness patterns across the contiguous US was by far the best, demonstrating the individual value of each index. Regions with longer snow seasons generally supported fewer species. Species richness increased steadily up to moderate levels of snow cover variability and frozen ground without snow, after which it steeply declined. Our results show that the MODIS WHIs accurately characterized unique gradients of snow cover dynamics and provided important information on winter habitat conditions for birds, highlighting their potential for ecological research and conservation planning.