Trait-based functional dietary analysis provides a better insight into the foraging ecology of bats.J Anim Ecol 2019; 88(10):1587-1600JA
The degree of trophic specialization determines the ability of predators to cope with changing foraging conditions, but in predators that prey on hundreds of species it is challenging to assess, especially when prey identity varies among predator individuals and across space and time. Here, we test the hypothesis that a bat species foraging on flying insects like moths will show ample flexibility in trophic niche, and this irrespective of phylogenetic relationships among moths, so as to cope with a high diversity of prey types that vary across seasons. We predict that individual bats will show functional dietary differences consistent with energetic requirements and hunting skills. We used DNA metabarcoding to determine the diet of 126 Mediterranean horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus euryale) from two different sites during three seasons. Simultaneously, we measured moth availability and characterized the traits of 290 moth taxa. Next, we explored the relationship between phylogeny and traits of all consumed and available moth taxa. Finally, we assessed the relationship between individual traits of bats and traits related to prey profitability, for which we used the RLQ and fourth-corner statistical techniques. Seasonality was the main factor explaining the functional dietary variation in adult bats, with moths consumed irrespective of their phylogenetic relationships. While adults consumed moths with a broad range in wing loading, body mass and echolocation detection ability, juveniles consumed slower, smaller and lighter moths, which suggests that young individuals may undergo some fitness gain and/or psychomotor learning process during which they would acquire more effective foraging skills. Our approach revealed a degree of functional flexibility in the trophic niche previously unknown for an insectivorous bat. Rhinolophus euryale consumed a wide variety of moth taxa differing in profitability throughout seasons and between ontogenetic stages. We showed the validity of trait-based approaches to gain new insights in the trophic specialization of predators consuming hundreds of species of prey.