Modelling three-dimensional space to design prey refuges using video game software
© 2021 The Authors. Refuges can be ecologically important, allowing access only to some species or individuals and providing prey protection from predators. Creation of refuges can be used to protect threatened species from introduced predators, which can have large negative impacts that are difficult to attenuate via other means. To design refuges for conservation purposes, refuge accessibility to different species must be understood. Traditional techniques are not adequate to measure or describe complex three-dimensional spaces which are often important refuges. We designed a novel predictive method for modeling three-dimensional refuge space using video game software that simulates real-world physics (Unity, PhysX). We use the study system of endemic New Zealand skinks (Oligosoma spp.), their introduced predators, house mice (Mus musculus), and the habitat of interstitial spaces within rock piles to demonstrate how this modeling technique can be used to inform design of habitat enhancement for conservation. We used video game software to model realistic rock piles and measure their interstitial spaces, and found that the spaces we predicted matched those we measured in real rock piles using computed tomography (CT) scanning. We used information about the sizes of gaps accessible to skinks and mice and the results of our modeling to determine the optimal size of rocks to create refuges which would protect skinks from mice. We determined the ideal rock size to be those with graded diameters of 20–40 mm. The approach we developed could be used to describe interstitial spaces in habitats as they naturally occur, or it could be applied to design habitats to benefit particular species.