Changes in dietary preferences in animal species play a pivotal role in niche specialization. Here, we investigate how divergence of foraging behaviour affects the trophic position of animals and thereby their role for ecosystem processes. As a model, we used two closely related bat species, Myotis myotis and M. blythii oxygnathus, that are morphologically very similar and share the same roosts, but show clear behavioural divergence in habitat selection and foraging. Based on previous dietary studies on synanthropic populations in Central Europe, we hypothesised that M. myotis would mainly prey on predatory arthropods (i. e., secondary consumers) while M. blythii oxygnathus would eat herbivorous insects (i. e., primary consumers). We thus expected that the sibling bats would be at different trophic levels. We first conducted a validation experiment with captive bats in the laboratory and measured isotopic discrimination, i. e., the stepwise enrichment of heavy in relation to light isotopes between consumer and diet, in insectivorous bats for the first time. We then tested our trophic level hypothesis in the field at an ancient site of natural coexistence for the two species (Bulgaria, south-eastern Europe) using stable isotope analyses. As predicted, secondary consumer arthropods (carabid beetles; Coleoptera) were more enriched in 15N than primary consumer arthropods (tettigoniids; Orthoptera), and accordingly wing tissue of M. myotis was more enriched in 15N than tissue of M. blythii oxygnathus. According to a Bayesian mixing model, M. blythii oxygnathus indeed fed almost exclusively on primary consumers (98%), while M. myotis ate a mix of secondary (50%), but also, and to a considerable extent, primary consumers (50%). Our study highlights that morphologically almost identical, sympatric sibling species may forage at divergent trophic levels, and, thus may have different effects on ecosystem processes.
- Behavioural divergence
- Stable isotopes