Genetic mechanisms determining habitat selection and specialization of individuals within species have been hypothesized, but not tested at the appropriate individual level in nature. In this work, we analyzed habitat selection for 139 GPS-collared caribou belonging to three declining ecotypes sampled throughout Northwestern Canada. We used Resource Selection Functions (RSFs) comparing resources at used and available locations. We found that the three caribou ecotypes differed in their use of habitat suggesting specialization. On expected grounds, we also found differences in habitat selection between summer and winter, but also, originally, among the individuals within an ecotype. We next obtained Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) for the same caribou individuals, we detected those associated to habitat selection, and then identified genes linked to these SNPs. These genes had functions related in other organisms to habitat and dietary specializations, and climatic adaptations. We therefore suggest that individual variation in habitat selection was based on genotypic variation in the SNPs of individual caribou, indicating that genetic forces underlie habitat and diet selection in the species. We also suggest that the associations between habitat and genes that we detected may lead to lack of resilience in the species, thus contributing to caribou endangerment. Our work emphasizes that similar mechanisms may exist for other specialized, endangered species.
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