High extinction risk and limited habitat connectivity of Muñoa's pampas cat, an endemic felid of the Uruguayan Savanna ecoregion
Tirelli FP., Trigo TC., Queirolo D., Kasper CB., Bou N., Peters F., Mazim FD., Martínez-Lanfranco JA., González EM., Espinosa C., Favarini M., da Silva LG., Macdonald DW., Lucherini M., Eizirik E.
Muñoa's pampas cat (recently proposed to be a distinct species, Leopardus munoai) is a small felid that is endemic to the Uruguayan Savanna ecoregion (encompassing southern Brazil, north-eastern Argentina and Uruguay). Previous studies have suggested that it is threatened, but its conservation assessment has been hampered by the scarcity of data on its ecology, including spatial distribution, population size, and connectivity. To address these issues, we developed current spatial distribution models and used them to: (i) identify the environmental variables affecting L. munoai habitat suitability; (ii) generate estimates of population size to assess its conservation status based on IUCN criteria; (iii) estimate habitat suitability in protected areas; (iv) identify potential paths of connectivity among protected areas and sites of confirmed occurrence; and (v) assess the proportion of the estimated connectivity paths that overlap with threatened areas (based on future threat projections). Our results indicated higher habitat suitability in the central area of the species’ distribution. All estimates (based on different demographic assumptions) indicated that L. munoai should be categorized in one of the IUCN threatened categories. Worryingly, several estimates indicated that it may be Critically Endangered. Only 0.73 % of its high-suitability landscape is presently protected, and connectivity among most protected areas and occurrence records was low. Additionally, areas with estimated connectivity among occurrence records mostly overlapped with regions with a high level of future habitat loss threat (92.46 %), highlighting the urgent need for an international approach to ensure the long-term survival of this elusive felid.