Maltese bats show phylogeographic affiliation with North-Africa: implications for conservation
Femke Batsleer 1,2  
,   Elena Portelli 3,   John J. Borg 4
,   Andreas Kiefer 5,   Michael Veith 5
,   Daan Dekeukeleire 1,2
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Ghent University, Department of Biology, Terrestrial Ecology Unit, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, 9000 Gent, Belgium
Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation NPO (BINCO), Walmersumstraat 44, 3380 Glabbeek, Belgium
Green House NGO, PO Box 1023, South Street, VLT 1505 Valletta, Malta
National Museum of Natural History, Vilhena Palace, St Publius Square, MDN 1010 Mdina, Malta
Department of Biogeography, Trier University, Universitätsring 15, 54296 Trier, Germany
Femke Batsleer   

Ghent University, Department of Biology, Terrestrial Ecology Unit, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, 9000 Gent, Belgium
Online publication date: 2019-12-30
Publication date: 2019-12-30
Hystrix It. J. Mamm. 2019;30(2):172–177
Data Accessibility
Nucleotide sequences for the new haplotypes recorded during this study were deposited in GenBank under accession no. MN685103-MN685107. The final alignment is deposited in TreeBASE.
In the Mediterranean region, cryptic diversity of bats is common. As distinct genetic lineages should be managed independently for conservation, insight into bat phylogeography is important. The Maltese islands are located in the centre of the Mediterranean between North Africa and Sicily and are densely populated. At present, it is thought that at least seven species of bats are native, but phylogeographic affiliations remain largely unexplored. Therefore, we sequenced a ca. 540 bp fragment of the mitochondrial 16S rRNA gene from 23 bats, which were captured during the citizen-science project Akustika. We found two morphologically cryptic lineages common in North Africa, Plecotus gaisleri and a mainly North-African lineage of Hypsugo savii (named Hypsugo cf. darwinii in some recent studies). We also recorded two Pipistrellus species. The P. kuhlii haplotype belonged to a lineage present in North-Africa and across the Mediterranean. Within P. pipistrellus we found two novel haplotypes that clustered within a North-African clade, well distinguished from the European haplotypes. Our results highlight the historic connection between the bat fauna of the Maltese Islands and North Africa. Malta is one of the few regions in the European Union where P. gaisleri and the North-African clades of P. pipistrellus and H. savii occur. Hence, Malta has an exceptionally high responsibility for the conservation of these taxa in Europe.
This study was supported by the Environment Fund, administered by the Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Malta. F.B. is supported by Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). We thank FKNK and the private landowners Ms. Saliba and Mr. Bugeja for allowing access to their property for this study. We thank Vleermuizenwerkgroep Natuurpunt (Belgium) for logistical support. We thank all the volunteers from Green House and BINCO that helped with the field work. Special thanks to volunteers from Nature Trust, especially Ms. Garrovillo and Ms. Azzopardi who joined the surveys and provided us with samples from animals in their care. Furthermore, we would like to thank Simone Cutajar and Merlijn Jocqué for contributing to the overall study design and logistic support, and Jaap van Schaik for comments on an early draft. We thank four anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.