Top predators as indicators for species richness? Prey species are just as useful


  • Tobias Roth,

    Corresponding author
    1. Biodiversity Monitoring Switzerland, c/o Hintermann & Weber AG, Austrasse 2a, 4153 Reinach BL, Switzerland;
    2. Research Station Petite Camargue Alsacienne, Rue de la Pisciculture, 68300 Saint-Louis, France; and
    3. Zoological Institute, University of Basel, Vesalgasse 1, 4051 Basel, Switzerland
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  • Darius Weber

    1. Biodiversity Monitoring Switzerland, c/o Hintermann & Weber AG, Austrasse 2a, 4153 Reinach BL, Switzerland;
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  • 1The use of surrogates to identify protected areas is a common practice in conservation biology. The use of top predators as surrogates has been criticized but recently a strong positive relationship was found between the presence of top predators and species diversity of several taxa. As mentioned by the authors, these striking results need to be assessed on a larger scale.
  • 2We used data from the Swiss Biodiversity Monitoring Programme and the Swiss breeding bird survey to analyse the use of raptor species as a surrogate for plant, butterfly and bird species richness. For each raptor species, we compared species richness in sites where a raptor species was recorded and compared these sites with the remaining sites in which the raptor species was not recorded. For comparison we conducted the same analyses using tits Parus spp. Tits are common prey species of some raptor species and were the most species-rich generalist genus in our data.
  • 3We found little justification for a focus on top predators when identifying conservation areas. For bird and plant species richness, raptors were reasonable surrogates for high species richness but no raptor species predicted sites with above-average butterfly species richness.
  • 4The presence of tit species performed equally as well as the presence of raptor species to predict sites with high species richness of birds and plants, and performed even better for predicting high butterfly species richness.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Conservation planners using indicator species should be aware that relationships among higher taxa are complex and depend on the species group and the scale of analysis. As shown with the case of raptors, the usefulness of a biodiversity indicator can vary between adjacent areas even if the same species groups are analysed. We recommend the use of more than one indicator species from different taxonomic groups when identifying areas of high biodiversity.