Silva, A.P., Mukherjee, S., Ramakrishnan, U., Fernandes, C. & Björklund, M. (2020) Closely related species show species-specific environmental responses and different spatial conservation needs: Prionailurus cats in the Indian subcontinent.Scientific Reports, 10, 18705. DOI:10.1038/s41598-020-74684-8 (IF2019 3,998; Q1 Multidisciplinary Sciences)
Phylogenetically closely related species are often assumed to have similar responses to environmental conditions, but species-specific responses have also been described. These two scenarios may have different conservation implications. We tested these two hypotheses for Prionailurus cats (P. rubiginosus, P. bengalensis, P. viverrinus) in the Indian subcontinent and show its implications on species current protected area coverage and climatic suitability trends through time. We fitted ecological niche models with current environmental conditions and calculated niche overlap. In addition, we developed a model for the Jungle Cat Felis chaus to compare species responses and niche overlap estimates within Prionailurus with those for a related sympatric small cat species. Then we estimated the proportion of current suitable environment covered by protected area and projected climatic models from past (last interglacial) to future (2070; RCP4.5 and RCP8.5) conditions to show implications on population management and conservation. The hypothesis of a similar response and niche overlap among closely related species is not supported. Protected area coverage was lowest for P. viverrinus (mean = 0.071, SD = 0.012) and highest for P. bengalensis (mean = 0.088, SD = 0.006). In addition, the proportion of the subcontinent with suitable climate varied through time and was species-specific. For P. bengalensis, climatic suitability shrunk since at least the mid-Holocene, a trend that can be intensified by human-induced climate warming. Concerning P. viverrinus, most predictions show stable future climatic suitability, but a few indicated potential loss. Climatic suitability for P. rubiginous was predicted to remain stable but the species exhibited a negative association with intensive agriculture. Similar responses to environmental change by phylogenetically closely related species should not be assumed and have implications on protected area coverage and natural trends of species climatic suitability over time. This should be taken into account during conservation and management actions.