Bats, insects and pecans: habitat use and ecosystem services of insectivorous bats in a pecan agroecosystem in central Texas
Braun de Torrez, Elizabeth Claire
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Comprehensive wildlife conservation strategies must include consideration of the agricultural matrix and its integration into the greater landscape. Bats are postulated to provide critical pest suppression services, but the effects of agricultural intensification on insectivorous bats are not clear. Few studies have thoroughly investigated the ecosystem services provided by bats due, in part, to limited understanding of species-specific habitat use in agricultural landscapes, difficulties in prey identification, and the challenge of quantifying the impact of bats on pest populations and crops. My dissertation integrates these components to describe ecological relationships between the insects and bats associated with a pecan agroecosystem in central Texas. Specifically, I focus on the predator-prey relationship between bats and the pecan nut casebearer moth (PNC), a devastating pest of pecans. I begin with a literature review of the ecosystem services of insectivorous bats and the data necessary to thoroughly evaluate these services. I then assess the potential factors influencing species composition and spatio-temporal distributions of bats within the pecan agroecosystem. My results demonstrate higher activity and diversity of bats within the pecan agroecosystem than in the surrounding landscape likely due to roosting opportunities, but species-specific and seasonal differences exist in the effects of management intensity. Next, I investigate direct interactions between bats and PNC by measuring prey consumption patterns. I found that five species of bats prey upon PNC moths during all three critical population peaks prior to insecticide application, but there is variability in consumption among species. Finally, I assess indirect interactions between bats and pecans, by evaluating the effect of bat predation risk on pecan damage by PNC larvae. A negative relationship between foraging activity by bats and both PNC moths and PNC larval damage to pecans provides evidence that bat predation has quantitative downstream effects. My results highlight the conservation value of the agricultural matrix for bats and the complexities of accurately documenting ecosystem services provided by free-ranging mobile organisms.