Habitat visibility affects the behavioral response of a large herbivore to human disturbance in forest landscapes

Xin Zong* (Corresponding Author), Tiejun Wang, A.K. Skidmore, Marco Heurich

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Wildlife can perceive humans as predators and human disturbance, whether lethal (e.g., hunting) or non-lethal (e.g., hiking, biking, and skiing), triggers antipredator behavior among prey. Visibility is the property that relates habitat structure to accessibility of visual information that allows animals to detect predators and evaluate predation risk. Thus, the visibility of a habitat (hereafter referred to as habitat visibility) for prey species alters the perceived risk of predation and therefore has a strong influence on their antipredator behavior. Yet, knowledge of how habitat visibility affects the response of animals to different types of human disturbance is limited, partly, because it is challenging to measure habitat visibility for animals at a fine spatial scale over a landscape, particularly in highly heterogeneous landscapes (e.g., forests). In this study, we employed a newly described approach that combines terrestrial and airborne LiDAR to contiguously measure fine-scale habitat visibility in a forested landscape. We applied the LiDAR-derived habitat visibility to examine how habitat visibility in forests affects the summer space use of 20 GPS-collared female red deer (Cervus elaphus) modeled with integrated step-selection functions in the Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany when exposed to various types of human disturbance including recreational activities, forest roads, hiking trails, and hunting. We found that red deer in our study area avoided areas with higher all types of human disturbance, especially during daylight hours. Furthermore, habitat visibility significantly modified the use of space by red deer in response to human recreational activities, forest roads, and hiking trails, but not to the hunting area. Red deer tended to tolerate a higher intensity of human recreational activities and to use areas closer to forest roads or hiking trails when they have lower habitat visibility (i.e., more cover). Our findings highlight the importance of considering visual perception when studying the response of wild animals to human disturbance. We emphasize the potential to mitigate negative consequences of human disturbance on wildlife, through measures such as maintaining vegetative buffers around recreational infrastructure (e.g., roads and skiing tracks) in order to reduce habitat visibility around areas frequented by humans.

Original languageEnglish
Article number119244
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of environmental management
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2023


  • Fine-scale visibility
  • Hiking trails
  • Hunting
  • LiDAR
  • Recreational activities
  • Three-dimensional viewshed


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