Sartor, C. C., Cushman, S. A., Wan, H. Y., Kretschmer, R., Pereira, J. A., Bou, N., Cosse, M., González, S., Eizirik, E., Freitas, T. R. O., & Trigo, T. C. (2021). The role of the environment in the spatial dynamics of an extensive hybrid zone between two neotropical cats. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, jeb.13761.
Identifying factors that create and maintain a hybrid zone is of great interest to ecology, evolution and, more recently, conservation biology. Here, we investigated the role of environmental features in shaping the spatial dynamics of a hybrid zone between the southern tigrina, Leopardus guttulus, and Geoffroy’s cat, L. geoffroyi, testing for exogenous selection as the main force acting on its maintenance. These Neotropical felid species are mainly allopatric, with a restricted area of sympatry in the ecotone between the Atlantic Forest and Pampa biomes. As both biomes have experienced high rates of anthropogenic habitat alteration, we also analysed the influence of habitat conversion on the hybrid zone structure. To do this, we used 13 microsatellite loci to identify potential hybrids and generated ecological niche models for them and their parental species. We compared the influence of variables on parental species and hybrid occurrence and calculated the amount of niche overlap among them. Parental species showed different habitat requirements and predicted co‐occurrence was restricted to the forest‐grassland mosaic of the ecotone. However, hybrids were found beyond this area, mainly in the range of L. geoffroyi. Hybrids demonstrated higher tolerance to habitat alteration than parental types, with a probability of occurrence that was positively related with mosaics of cropland areas and remnants of natural vegetation. These results indicate that exogenous selection alone does not drive the dynamics of the hybrid zone, and that habitat conversion influences its structure, potentially favouring hybrids over parental species.