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The challenge posed by newly discovered cryptic species: disentangling the environmental niches of long-eared bats

Authors

  • Marianne D. Rutishauser,

    Corresponding author
    • Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Conservation Biology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
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  • Fabio Bontadina,

    1. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Conservation Biology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
    2. SWILD, Urban Ecology and Wildlife Research, Zürich, Switzerland
    3. Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Research Unit, Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland
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  • Veronika Braunisch,

    1. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Conservation Biology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
    2. Forest Research Institute of Baden-Wuerttemberg FVA, Freiburg, Germany
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  • Sohrab Ashrafi,

    1. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Conservation Biology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
    2. Department of Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Natural Resources, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran
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  • Raphaël Arlettaz

    1. Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Conservation Biology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
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Correspondence: Marianne Rutishauser, Division of Conservation Biology, Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Baltzerstrasse 6, CH - 3012 Bern, Switzerland.

E-mail: rutishauser.marianne@gmail.com

Abstract

Aim

The discovery of cryptic species poses new challenges for species conservation. Species distributions and conservation status have to be re-evaluated, and the ecological requirements within the species complex have to be re-assessed to recommend adequate conservation guidelines. The recent discovery in Central Europe of the cryptic bat species Plecotus macrobullaris (Kuzjakin 1965) calls for a new appraisal of all three Plecotus species in that area.

Location

Switzerland.

Methods

Using mostly DNA-identified records, we investigated the environmental niches (ecological niche factor analysis) of the three long-eared bat species at the landscape scale and modelled their potential distributions. Discriminant analysis was used for interspecific niche comparisons.

Results

The occurrence of all three species was best explained by proximity to rural settlements and warm summer temperature. Plecotus auritus (Linnaeus, 1758) was positively associated with transition zones from forests to other habitats within heterogeneous landscapes; Plecotus austriacus (J. Fischer, 1829) was more frequently found in orchards and vineyards. Plecotus macrobullaris was linked mostly with deciduous forests. P. auritus had the broadest niche, with occurrence predicted in most forested regions throughout Switzerland. The slightly narrower niche of P. macrobullaris mainly encompassed areas in the Central and Southern Alps. P. austriacus showed a very narrow niche and was predicted mainly in the lowlands, with its habitat requirements overlapping those of P. macrobullaris. Although a range overlap was predicted between P. austriacus and P. macrobullaris, current observations suggest a mostly parapatric distribution in Switzerland.

Main conclusions

The projected distributions confirm previous knowledge for P. auritus, but shed new light on the other two species. In contrast to the newly discovered P. macrobullaris, which is actually widespread in the Southern Alps of Switzerland, P. austriacus is restricted to warmer cultivated lowlands and thus may have suffered from recent major land use changes. We suggest reclassifying P. austriacus to a higher conservation status.

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