Steppe rodents at the edge of their range: A case study of Spalax microphthalmus in the north of Ukraine
AbstractBased on results obtained during 2000–2018 by field research, polls of colleagues, and OSINT analysis, features of distribution of the greater mole rat Spalax microphthalmus in the eastern forest steppe of Ukraine were considered. The studied part of the species’ range is unique and represents the northern range edge of the entire Spalacidae family and of European steppe faunal assemblages in general. In total, data on 146 record localities were amassed, including 13 localities in the fragmented and 133 in the continuous part of the range. The offshoots of the Central Russian Upland in the valley of the Psel river (east of Sumy Oblast) are the sites with the highest density of settlements, while the species’ type biotopes are steppe balka slopes. The abundance of the greater mole rat decreased from the east to the west, and its colonies are the most fragmented along the Dnipro River. The species occurs in steppe and meadow habitats of an area of at least 20–50 ha. Analysis of the current and former distribution of the greater mole rat revealed that the species range contracts from the west; earlier it was a common species in different regions of the Middle Dnipro Area (including Kyiv city), but the current range edge runs along the line connecting Buryn – Nedryhailiv – Lokhvytsia – Myrhorod – Hadiach – Zinkiv – Zaliznychne. Isolated settlements exist in adjacent territories, particularly in Ichnia Raion of Chernihiv Oblast, and Lubny, Khorol, and Kobeliaky Raions of Poltava Oblast. The study showed that the species’ range contracted by two times to 35,000 km2 for the last 100 years, which includes only 430,000 ha of suitable habitats (15% of the range), allowing the existence here of 86,000–215,000 individuals. In fact, the species remained only in habitats that have been minimally affected by arable farming and other forms of active agricultural use. Besides, the species shows a clear confinement to habitats located near human settlements such as untilled lands, pastures with moderate grazing, waste and neglected lands, which constitute a separate group of transformed and semi-natural habitats. Formally, this allows the greater mole rat to be considered as a synanthropic species, because its inhabited biotopes, beside the zone of offshoots of the Central Russian Upland, have remained only near villages and along roads. The species also has an important biocoenotic role due to its burrowing activity and as prey of predatory birds (e.g., of the long-legged buzzard and Eurasian eagle owl) and mammals. The feeding period of the offspring of these predators generally coincides with the aboveground activity of mole rats, which lasts during May–July with a peak in June. Aboveground activity is mainly related to the resettlement of mole rats to new sites and dispersal of the young, due to which they became victims of predators.
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