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Keywords:

  • ATP6;
  • carnivora;
  • character-based diagnosis;
  • cytochrome oxidase I gene;
  • DNA barcodes;
  • faeces

Abstract

Although species assignment of scats is important to study carnivore biology, there is still no standardized assay for the identification of carnivores worldwide, which would allow large-scale routine assessments and reliable cross-comparison of results. Here, we evaluate the potential of two short mtDNA fragments [ATP6 (126 bp) and cytochrome oxidase I gene (COI) (187 bp)] to serve as standard markers for the Carnivora. Samples of 66 species were sequenced for one or both of these segments. Alignments were complemented with archival sequences and analysed with three approaches (tree-based, distance-based and character-based). Intraspecific genetic distances were generally lower than between-species distances, resulting in diagnosable clusters for 86% (ATP6) and 85% (COI) of the species. Notable exceptions were recently diverged species, most of which could still be identified using diagnostic characters and uniqueness of haplotypes or by reducing the geographic scope of the comparison. In silico analyses were also performed for a 110-bp cytochrome b (cytb) segment, whose identification success was lower (70%), possibly due to the smaller number of informative sites and/or the influence of misidentified sequences obtained from GenBank. Finally, we performed case studies with faecal samples, which supported the suitability of our two focal markers for poor-quality DNA and allowed an assessment of prey DNA co-amplification. No evidence of prey DNA contamination was found for ATP6, while some cases were observed for COI and subsequently eliminated by the design of more specific primers. Overall, our results indicate that these segments hold good potential as standard markers for accurate species-level identification in the Carnivora.