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Keywords:

  • insectivores;
  • molecular diet analysis;
  • species' interactions

Abstract

Generalist species with numerous food web interactions are thought to provide stability to ecosystem dynamics; however, it is not always clear whether habitat generality translates into dietary diversity. Big brown bats are common across North America and employ a flexible foraging strategy over water, dense forests, forest edges and rural and urban settings. Despite this generalist use of habitat, they are paradoxically characterized as beetle specialists. However, hard carapaces may preferentially survive digestion leading to over-representation during morphological analysis of diet. This specialization has not been evaluated independently using molecular analysis and species-level identification of prey. We used next-generation sequencing to assess the diet of big brown bats. Beetles were consumed in the highest frequency but Lepidoptera species richness was highest among identified prey. The consumption of species showed strong seasonal and annual variation. While Coleoptera consumption varied, Lepidoptera and Ephemeroptera were relatively constant dietary components. Dietary diversity increased in late summer when insect diversity decreases. Our results indicate that big brown bats are dietary generalists and, while beetles are an important component of the diet, Lepidoptera are equally important, and Lepidoptera and Ephemeroptera are the only stable prey resource exploited. As resources become limited, big brown bats may respond by increasing the species richness of prey and thus their connectedness in the ecosystem. This characterization of diet corresponds well with a generalist approach to foraging, making them an important species in encouraging and maintaining ecosystem stability.