Sympatric cryptic species, characterized by low morphological differentiation, pose a challenge to understanding the role of interspecific competition in structuring ecological communities. We used traditional (morphological) and novel molecular methods of diet analysis to study the diet of two cryptic bat species that are sympatric in southern England (Plecotus austriacus and P. auritus) (Fig. 1). Using Roche FLX 454 (Roche, Basel, CH) high-throughput sequencing (HTS) and uniquely tagged generic arthropod primers, we identified 142 prey Molecular Operational Taxonomic Units (MOTUs) in the diet of the cryptic bats, 60% of which were assigned to a likely species or genus. The findings from the molecular study supported the results of microscopic analyses in showing that the diets of both species were dominated by lepidopterans. However, HTS provided a sufficiently high resolution of prey identification to determine fine-scale differences in resource use. Although both bat species appeared to have a generalist diet, eared-moths from the family Noctuidae were the main prey consumed. Interspecific niche overlap was greater than expected by chance (O(jk) = 0.72, P <0.001) due to overlap in the consumption of the more common prey species. Yet, habitat associations of nongeneralist prey species found in the diets corresponded to those of their respective bat predator (grasslands for P. austriacus, and woodland for P. auritus). Overlap in common dietary resource use combined with differential specialist prey habitat associations suggests that habitat partitioning is the primary mechanism of coexistence. The performance of HTS is discussed in relation to previous methods of molecular and morphological diet analysis. By enabling species-level identification of dietary components, the application of DNA sequencing to diet analysis allows a more comprehensive comparison of the diet of sympatric cryptic species, and therefore can be an important tool for determining fine-scale mechanisms of coexistence.
Ecology and Evolution, 2011, Vol 1, Issue 4, p. 556-570