Small-scale genetic structure of American black bears illustrates potential postglacial recolonization routes

Pelletier, A., M. E. Obbard, B. N. White, C. Doyle, and C. J. Kyle

In the absence of obvious barriers to dispersal microsatellite studies of vagile mammalian carnivores frequently find panmictic-like genetic structure over wide scales, whereas high levels of differentiation at much finer scales are detected with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Given the maternal inheritance of mtDNA, these differences are often attributed to male-biased dispersal, remnants of postglacial range expansion, or both. Based on such contrasting results, it is not always clear how to delineate contemporary populations. We investigated the genetic structure of American black bears (Ursus americanus) over a wide geographic area (>1,700 km) that has no obvious physiogeographic barriers to gene flow. We analyzed a 315-base pair fragment of the mtDNA control region from 660 individual bears from 23 regions of Ontario, Canada. Relative to black bear studies based on nuclear data, mitochondrial analyses revealed much stronger patterns of genetic structure among regions (0.09 < FST < 0.44), even at small-scale intervals (<150 km), which likely reflects strong female philopatry combined with male-biased dispersal. The patterns of genetic differentiation among regions were consistent with previously described historical patterns in black bears, specifically the division of the species into 2 phylogeographic clades (coastal and continental). We confirmed that further subdivision of the continental clade occurs in a region where obvious physiogeographic barriers do not exist. We postulate that this small-scale differentiation can be explained by residual patterns from postglacial recolonization routes on either side of the Great Lakes. We suggest that it was maintained through extreme female philopatry due to habitat saturation following the postglacial geographic expansion. Based on our results, we propose that a combination of several molecular markers can be more useful in defining population units for conservation and management decisions than biparentally inherited microsatellites.

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Pelletier, A., M. E. Obbard, B. N. White, C. Doyle, and C. J. Kyle. 2011. Small-scale genetic structure of American black bears illustrates potential postglacial recolonization routes. Journal of Mammalogy 92(3):629-644.