Range-restricted species generally have specific niche requirements and may often have unique evolutionary histories. Unfortunately, many of these species severely lack basic research, resulting in poor conservation strategies. The phylogenetic relationship of the Critically Endangered Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti has been the subject of a century-old debate. The current classifications based on non-phylogenetic comparisons of morphology place the small owls of Asia into three genera, namely, Athene, Glaucidium, and Heteroglaux. Based on morphological and anatomical data, H. blewitti has been alternatively hypothesized to belong within Athene, Glaucidium, or its own monotypic genus Heteroglaux. To test these competing hypotheses, we sequenced six loci (~4300 bp data) and performed phylogenetic analyses of owlets. Mitochondrial and nuclear trees were not congruent in their placement of H. blewitti. However, both mitochondrial and nuclear combined datasets showed strong statistical support with high maximum likelihood bootstrap (>/ = 90) and Bayesian posterior probability values (>/ = 0.98) for H. blewitti being nested in the currently recognized Athene group, but not sister to Indian A. brama. The divergence of H. blewitti from its sister taxa was between 4.3 and 5.7 Ma coinciding with a period of drastic climatic changes in the Indian subcontinent. This study presented the first genetic analysis of H. blewitti, a Critically Endangered species, and addressed the long debate on the relationships of the Athene-Heteroglaux-Glaucidium complex. We recommend further studies with more data and complete taxon sampling to understand the biogeography of Indian Athene species.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Department of Biotechnology, Government of India (http://www.dbtindia.nic.in/) provided a research grant (file no. BT/PR4812/BCE/ 8/898/2012) to SM; US National Science Foundation (https://www.nsf.gov/) (DEB-1457624) provided a grant to SR for partial museum work. In both cases, the funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. We would like to thank State Forest Departments (Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Chhattisgarh) for providing permits to work. We would like to thank Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Jivdaya Charitable Trust (JCT) and C. K. Vishnudas for helping with sample collection. We also thank Praveen Karanth, Rajah Jaypal, Ishan Agrawal and NCBS Lab-3 members for their valuable suggestions.
© 2018 Koparde et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.