Using terrestrial leeches to assess phylogeographic patterns of a rare and threatened species: the Annamite striped rabbit

Most vertebrate species are, at least concerning their blood, also target species for leeches. Here we use leech-derived DNA, meaning the DNA from the host species that the leech fed on, to study the distribution pattern of a very elusive and threatened lagomorph species, the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), endogenous to the Annamite mountain range (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).

Project details
Duration: 04/2017 – 12/2020
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Ecological Dynamics, Dept Evolutionary Genetics
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s):
Andreas Wilting (Dept Ecological Dynamics)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team:
Thanh Van Nguyen (Dept Ecological Dynamics/Dept Evolutionary Genetics)
Jan Axtner (Dept Ecological Dynamics);
Jörns Fickel, Anke Schmidt (all: Dept Evolutionary Genetics )
Consortium Partner(s):
Current Funding Organisation: Russell E. Train Fellowships to Thanh Van Nguyen
Research Foci: Developing theories, methods, and tools
Molecular data on the phylogeography of a species has become vital for its conservation management as it for instance provides information for captive breeding (e.g. in zoos), proper translocation of individuals, as well as for wildlife forensics by allowing to trace back the geographic origin of illegally traded wildlife specimens. To obtain such molecular data, however is usually not easy. The most challenging task therby is the retrival of specimen across a specie's range, a challenge which often is overcome by using archived museum samples whose proveniences are known.
Unfortunately, many species are not represented in museums, in particular rare and elusive species or species that are endemic to regions that have not been sampled much for various reasons. In particular for rare and elusive species, an alternative solution is the use of leech-derived host-DNA, which in recent years has become a widely used non-invasive method to either detect species of interest or to even assess general pattern of biodiversity in entire areas.
Here we develop a pipeline to extract, sequence and bioinformatically analyze leech-derived host-DNA to infer the phylogeography of a very rare and elusive lagomorph species, the Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), endogenous to the indochinese Annamite mountain range.