Ski Resorts And Reptiles: Studying The Impacts
Human activities can disrupt ecosystems in many ways. In alpine and subalpine settings—where tourists flock to ski, snowboard, and engage in other wintertime activities—land development and human movements can disrupt wildlife habitats. There is only limited research on the impacts of “ski disturbances” on wildlife. But the research that does exist has found that there can be negative effects on wildlife.
This includes reducing the biodiversity and richness of bird populations and mammals. But reptiles are also important alpine and subalpine species. The impacts of ski activities on these species “remain unclear.” While we know that ski activity can cause problems for other species, the specific impacts on reptiles remain to be seen.
In this study, the researchers used a natural experiment to try to get a quantitative understanding of the impact of ski resorts on reptiles. In particular, they wanted to know the following: if ski disturbances affect the abundance of reptiles, whether the patterns of disturbance are “structural or compositional,” and if the effects of disturbances are more pronounced for more specialized species.
To achieve their aims, the researchers studied four different species of skink (a type of lizard), including both generalist and specialist species. They conducted their study at an alpine national park in southeastern Australia. Over the course of three survey periods, they recorded 950 skink observations from the different species.
In general, they found that the effect of ski disturbances varied across different species. The researchers found more pronounced disturbances among specialist species. Skinks generally avoided ski runs and they showed a preference for more “structurally complex habitat types.” Ski runs result in an “extreme structural simplification” of natural habitat. They provide only limited cover for reptiles in which to hide or escape from predators. They also leave reptiles exposed to more extreme weather conditions.
The researchers note that more research is needed to make more solid recommendations. But they suggest that reconnecting habitats that have been isolated or fragmented by ski runs is an essential first step to helping skinks. For animal advocates whose scope of work includes a focus on reptiles and/or alpine and subalpine areas, improving habitat could represent an excellent starting point.