Aim We explored general habitat-related explanations (niche breadth and niche position) to the contrasting status of two amphibian species that have largely overlapping ranges and habitats – the rare and declining crested newt (Triturus cristatus), and the more common smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris). These closely related and ecologically similar species provide an excellent opportunity to study those methodologically challenging hypotheses, and this is the first such study on amphibians.
Methods We derived multivariate habitat models from 27 characteristics of 210 ponds and their surroundings, and their occupation by newts. In addition to the model performance, niche breadths were compared using the mean beta diversity of amphibian communities in the presence of each newt species.
Results For each newt species, the habitat models comprised three variables and correctly classified 74% of observations. Diverse invertebrate fauna (prey base) and shorter distances to other ponds inhabited by conspecifics were positive for both species, while the surrounding habitat (notably dry grasslands with forests) was important for the crested newt and the sediment type of the pond for the smooth newt only. Beta diversity of the amphibian communities of occupied ponds did not differ between the two newt species. Hence, in an area of frequent coexistence, habitat requirements of the species differed in key variables, not in the extent of specialization.
Main conclusions Our study supported the niche position rather than the niche-breadth hypothesis of rarity. We suggest that the rarity and/or continuing decline of the crested newt is related to the degradation of (semi)natural terrestrial habitats around suitable water bodies in Europe. Consequently, special restoration of such habitats has a high potential for the recovery of this rare species, while general pond management appeared more beneficial for the common smooth newt.