Spatial Differences in Genetic Diversity and Northward Migration Suggest Genetic Erosion Along the Boreal Caribou Southern Range Limit and Continued Range Retraction

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Laura Thompson
Cornelya Klütsch
Micheline Manseau
Paul Wilson
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With increasing human activities and associated landscape changes, distributions of terrestrial mammals become fragmented. These changes in distribution are often associated with reduced population sizes and loss of genetic connectivity and diversity (i.e., genetic erosion) which may further diminish a species' ability to respond to changing environmental conditions and lead to local population extinctions. We studied threatened boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) populations across their distribution in Ontario/Manitoba (Canada) to assess changes in genetic diversity and connectivity in areas of high and low anthropogenic activity. Using data from >1,000 caribou and nine microsatellite loci, we assessed population genetic structure, genetic diversity, and recent migration rates using a combination of network and population genetic analyses. We used Bayesian clustering analyses to identify population genetic structure and explored spatial and temporal variation in those patterns by assembling networks based on RST and FST as historical and contemporary genetic edge distances, respectively. The Bayesian clustering analyses identified broad-scale patterns of genetic structure and closely aligned with the RST network. The FST network revealed substantial contemporary genetic differentiation, particularly in areas presenting contemporary anthropogenic disturbances and habitat fragmentation. In general, relatively lower genetic diversity and greater genetic differentiation were detected along the southern range limit, differing from areas in the northern parts of the distribution. Moreover, estimation of migration rates suggested a northward movement of animals away from the southern range limit. The patterns of genetic erosion revealed in our study suggest ongoing range retraction of boreal caribou in central Canada.