Date Published: February 5, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Pankaj Koparde, Prachi Mehta, Sushma Reddy, Uma Ramakrishnan, Shomita Mukherjee, V. V. Robin, Matthias Stöck.
Range-restricted species generally have specific niche requirements and may often have unique evolutionary histories. Unfortunately, many of these species severely lack basic research, resulting in poor conservation strategies. The phylogenetic relationship of the Critically Endangered Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti has been the subject of a century-old debate. The current classifications based on non-phylogenetic comparisons of morphology place the small owls of Asia into three genera, namely, Athene, Glaucidium, and Heteroglaux. Based on morphological and anatomical data, H. blewitti has been alternatively hypothesized to belong within Athene, Glaucidium, or its own monotypic genus Heteroglaux. To test these competing hypotheses, we sequenced six loci (~4300 bp data) and performed phylogenetic analyses of owlets. Mitochondrial and nuclear trees were not congruent in their placement of H. blewitti. However, both mitochondrial and nuclear combined datasets showed strong statistical support with high maximum likelihood bootstrap (>/ = 90) and Bayesian posterior probability values (>/ = 0.98) for H. blewitti being nested in the currently recognized Athene group, but not sister to Indian A. brama. The divergence of H. blewitti from its sister taxa was between 4.3 and 5.7 Ma coinciding with a period of drastic climatic changes in the Indian subcontinent. This study presented the first genetic analysis of H. blewitti, a Critically Endangered species, and addressed the long debate on the relationships of the Athene-Heteroglaux-Glaucidium complex. We recommend further studies with more data and complete taxon sampling to understand the biogeography of Indian Athene species.
Endemic and endangered species are often ecologically specialized and there is an urgent need to better understand the ecology and phylogenetic history of endangered species to uncover features that might be crucial for conservation. Such species could be viewed as model species to understand evolutionary processes in the landscape of their occurrence [1–3]. However, our knowledge of the evolutionary history of highly restricted, endemic species in the tropics is limited, due to their rarity and incomplete genetic sampling . This could have far-reaching consequences on policy level decisions regarding species conservation.