Differences in sensory ecology contribute to resource partitioning in the bats Myotis bechsteinii and Myotis nattereri (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae)


Coexisting animal species frequently differ in resource use in at least one niche dimension and thus avoid competition. While a range of morphological differences that lead to differentiation in animals' mechanical access to food have been identified, the role of sensory differences in within-guild niche differentiation has received less attention. We tested the hypothesis that differences in sensory access to prey contribute to resource partitioning between potentially competing species using two sympatric, similar-sized, congeneric bat species as a model system. Nursery colonies of Natterer's bat (Myotis nattereri) and Bechstein's bat (Myotis bechsteinii) roost in bat boxes in the same orchard and forage in forests and orchards nearby. In observations and behavioural experiments with freshly captured M. bechsteinii, we showed that individuals are able to hunt using prey-generated sound alone. In contrast, M. nattereri rarely uses prey-generated sound, but instead is able to find prey by echolocation very close to vegetation. In accordance with these behavioural data, we showed that M. bechsteinii has significantly larger ears than M. nattereri, providing it with superior detection and localization abilities for relatively low-frequency prey rustling sounds. We hypothesized that these differences in sensory ecology of the two syntopic, congeneric species would contribute to resource partitioning, so that M. bechsteinii would find more noisy prey taxa, possibly hidden in vegetation, by listening for prey sounds, while M. nattereri would have better access to still prey using echolocation or associative learning. Analysis of faecal samples collected on the same nights from bat boxes occupied by each species corroborated this prediction. The diets of the two species differed significantly, reflecting their different prey perception techniques and thereby supporting the hypothesis that differences in sensory ecology contribute to niche differentiation.

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Funding for the study was provided by the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Si 816/2-1), the University of Aberdeen and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. We thank Werner Rose for help with identifying spider remains. Klemen Koselj, René Güttinger and Paul Racey provided valuable discussion and comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. We particularly acknowledge Dietmar Nill for access to the orchard and for his continuing help and interest in the bats there. The helpful comments by Brock Fenton and three anonymous referees are gratefully acknowledged. Faecal samples were collected and animals were captured and kept under licence issued by Regierungspräsidum Tübingen. The study complied with German conservation laws.

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Correspondence to Björn M. Siemers.

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B.M. Siemers and S.M. Swift contributed equally to this work.

Communicated by T. Czeschlik

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Siemers, B.M., Swift, S.M. Differences in sensory ecology contribute to resource partitioning in the bats Myotis bechsteinii and Myotis nattereri (Chiroptera: Vespertilionidae). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 59, 373–380 (2006) doi:10.1007/s00265-005-0060-5

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  • Sensory ecology
  • Prey detection
  • Niche differentiation
  • Chiroptera
  • Gleaning