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Keywords:

  • Andes;
  • biogeographical barriers;
  • biogeography;
  • climatic niche;
  • species distribution models

Abstract

Aim  To identify the bioclimatic niche of the endangered Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita), one of the rarest and least known felids in the world, by developing a species distribution model.

Location  South America, High Andes and Patagonian steppe. Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina.

Methods  We used 108 Andean cat records to build the models, and 27 to test them, applying the Maxent algorithm to sets of uncorrelated bioclimatic variables from global databases, including elevation. We based our biogeographical interpretations on the examination of the predicted geographic range, the modelled response curves and latitudinal variations in climatic variables associated with the locality data.

Results  Simple bioclimatic models for Andean cats were highly predictive with only 3–4 explanatory variables. The climatic niche of the species was defined by extreme diurnal variations in temperature, cold minimum and moderate maximum temperatures, and aridity, characteristic not only of the Andean highlands but also of the Patagonian steppe. Argentina had the highest representation of suitable climates, and Chile the lowest. The most favourable conditions were centrally located and spanned across international boundaries. Discontinuities in suitable climatic conditions coincided with three biogeographical barriers associated with climatic or topographic transitions.

Main conclusions  Simple bioclimatic models can produce useful predictions of suitable climatic conditions for rare species, including major biogeographical constraints. In our study case, these constraints are also known to affect the distribution of other Andean species and the genetic structure of Andean cat populations. We recommend surveys of areas with suitable climates and no Andean cat records, including the corridor connecting two core populations. The inclusion of landscape variables at finer scales, crucially the distribution of Andean cat prey, would contribute to refine our predictions for conservation applications.