Electric circuit theory applied to alien invasions: a connectivity model predicting the Balkan frog expansion in Northern Italy
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Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity and alien herpetofauna already caused conservation problems in Italy and in the world. Pelophylax kurtmuelleri (Gayda, 1940) is a water frog native to Southern Balkans, that was introduced in NW Italy (Liguria) in 1941, from where it has spread to Piedmont, Lombardy and recently to Emilia Romagna. Surprisingly, during its expansion, the Balkan frog seemed not to be able to cross the Po River (with a single exception). So, we investigated the reasons for such directional limitation of range expansion, focusing on the potential role of the Po River. Combining ecological niche and connectivity models, we adopted a two-step process in order to assess: (i) if the habitat suitability differs between the two sides of the Po Plain; (ii) if the Po River could act as a barrier in terms of dispersal. Results showed that the northern side of the plain seems less suitable than the southern one, even if many suitable patches occur along the main left tributaries of the Po River and in the hilly part of the plain. The Po River behaves like a barrier for the Balkan frog, but the only known point on the north bank of the river indicates that it may be able to only slow the dispersal and not to completely stop it. So, the most probable interpretation for the absence of the Balkan frog from the Northern Po Plain, is the combination of habitat suitability and connectivity issues: the former makes less probable that new viable populations can establish in the North, the latter decreases the northwards flux of the frogs. Given these findings, the Balkan frog seems able to spread in the whole Northern Italy and the colonization of the northern Po plain could happen shortly.