Aim To relate the recent Iberian lynx decline to changes in the distribution of the European rabbit after the haemorrhagic disease outbreak of 1989. As Iberian rabbits evolved in two geographically separated lineages, being the recent lynx range practically restricted to the southwestern lineage, we also test if differential range dynamics exists for these lineages, with the consequent implications for lynx conservation and reintroduction planning.
Location The Iberian Peninsula.
Methods We modelled environmental favourability for the lynx based on its distribution before 1989, and for the rabbit using distribution data collected primarily after 1989, and validated them using independent abundance data. We compared both models and combined them in a lynx occurrence forecast. We correlated the prevalence of southwestern rabbit lineage with the environmental favourability for the rabbit.
Results The environmental lynx model correlated with past lynx abundance data, but did not reflect its recent strong range contraction. The rabbit model correlated with recent rabbit abundance, but was negatively correlated with the environmental model for the lynx. The combination of both models forecasted lynx occurrence in a few separated nuclei, which encompass all recent lynx records. The prevalence of rabbit's southwestern lineage correlated negatively with favourability for the rabbit.
Main conclusions The region to which the lynx became confined before 1989 is currently less favourable for rabbits, whereas more favourable areas remain outside lynx reach. This differential favourability correlates with rabbit phylogeographical structure, suggesting that the southwestern lineage is facing more unfavourable conditions or is less resilient to recent diseases. The loss of concordance between lynx distribution and the whole rabbit phylogeographical structure has prevented lynx persistence in northeastern rabbit lineage areas, which should be considered in lynx reintroduction planning. Similar conservation problems could affect other ecologically interacting species whose distributions’ overlapping has sharply diminished.