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Ecological and biogeographical inferences on two sympatric and enigmatic Andean cat species using genetic identification of faecal samples

Authors

  • CONSTANZA NAPOLITANO,

    1. Laboratorio de Ecología Molecular,
    2. Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad, Departamento de Ciencias Ecológicas, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile,
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  • MAGDALENA BENNETT,

    1. Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity, Departamento de Ecología Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile,
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  • WARREN E. JOHNSON,

    1. Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute, Frederick, Maryland, USA,
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  • STEPHEN J. O’BRIEN,

    1. Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute, Frederick, Maryland, USA,
    2. Fundación Biodiversitas, Santiago, Chile
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  • PABLO A. MARQUET,

    1. Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad, Departamento de Ciencias Ecológicas, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile,
    2. Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity, Departamento de Ecología Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile,
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  • IVÁN BARRÍA,

    1. Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity, Departamento de Ecología Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile,
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  • ELIE POULIN,

    1. Laboratorio de Ecología Molecular,
    2. Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad, Departamento de Ciencias Ecológicas, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile,
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  • AGUSTÍN IRIARTE

    1. Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity, Departamento de Ecología Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile,
    2. Fundación Biodiversitas, Santiago, Chile
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Warren E. Johnson, Fax: 301-846-6327; E-mail: johnsonw@ncifcrf.gov

Abstract

The carnivore community of the altiplano ecosystem of the high Andes, including the Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita) and pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo), is one of the least studied in the world. We determined the origin of 186 carnivore samples (184 faeces and two skulls) collected above 3000 m above sea level in northern Chile, including 33 from the Andean mountain cat and 75 from the pampas cat using diagnostic molecular genetic sequence variation. We determined for the first time food habits, habitat and physiographic associations, and general patterns of molecular genetic variation of the Andean mountain cat and the pampas cat in Chile. Both species had narrow dietary niches dominated by small rodents and there was a wide overlap in diet composition (0.82), suggesting low levels of prey partitioning between species. The mountain viscacha (Lagidium viscacia) made up a large proportion of the biomass of the diet of both species, especially for the Andean mountain cat (93.9% vs. 74.8% for the pampas cat), underscoring the importance of further research and conservation focus on this vanishing prey species. Although the probability of finding Andean mountain cat scats increased with altitude and slope, there was substantial geographical overlap in distribution between species, revealing that the pampas cat distribution includes high-altitude grassland habitats. The Andean mountain cat had relatively low levels of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genetic variation (two mtDNA haplotypes) compared with the pampas cat (17 mtDNA haplotypes), suggestive of a distinct evolutionary history and relatively smaller historic populations. These insights will facilitate and provide tools and hypotheses for much-needed research and conservation efforts on these species and this ecosystem.

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