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DOI: 10.1101/2023.05.24.542071

Applying genomic approaches to identify historic population declines in European forest bats

O.Razgour C. Montauban F. Festa ...+8 K. Boughey
Anthropogenically-driven environmental changes over the past two centuries have led to severe biodiversity loss, most prominently in the form of loss of populations and individuals. Better tools are needed to assess the magnitude of these wildlife population declines. Anecdotal evidence suggests European bat populations have suffered substantial declines in the past few centuries. However, there is little empirical evidence of these declines that can be used to put more recent population changes into historic context and set appropriate targets for species recovery. This study is a collaboration between academics and conservation practitioners to develop molecular approaches capable of providing quantitative evidence of historic population changes and their drivers that can inform the assessment of conservation status and conservation management. We generated a genomic dataset for the Western barbastelle, Barbastella barbastellus, a globally Near Threatened and regionally Vulnerable bat species, including colonies from across the species British and Iberian ranges. We used a combination of landscape genetics and approximate Bayesian computation model-based inference of demographic history to identify both evidence of population size changes and possible drivers of these changes. We found that levels of genetic diversity increased and inbreeding decreased with increasing broadleaf woodland cover around the colony location. Genetic connectivity was impeded by artificial lights and facilitated by the combination of rivers and broadleaf woodland cover. The demographic history analysis showed that both the northern and southern British barbastelle populations have declined by 99% over the past 330-548 years. These declines may have been triggered by loss of large oak trees and native woodlands due to shipbuilding during the early colonial period. Genomic approaches can be applied to provide a better understanding of the conservation status of threatened species, within historic and contemporary context, and inform their conservation management. This study shows how we can bridge the implementation gap and promote the application of genomics in conservation management through co-designing studies with conservation practitioners and co-developing applied management targets and recommendations.