A multiscale analysis of gene flow for the New England cottontail, an imperiled habitat specialist in a fragmented landscape

Authors


Abstract

Landscape features of anthropogenic or natural origin can influence organisms' dispersal patterns and the connectivity of populations. Understanding these relationships is of broad interest in ecology and evolutionary biology and provides key insights for habitat conservation planning at the landscape scale. This knowledge is germane to restoration efforts for the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), an early successional habitat specialist of conservation concern. We evaluated local population structure and measures of genetic diversity of a geographically isolated population of cottontails in the northeastern United States. We also conducted a multiscale landscape genetic analysis, in which we assessed genetic discontinuities relative to the landscape and developed several resistance models to test hypotheses about landscape features that promote or inhibit cottontail dispersal within and across the local populations. Bayesian clustering identified four genetically distinct populations, with very little migration among them, and additional substructure within one of those populations. These populations had private alleles, low genetic diversity, critically low effective population sizes (3.2–36.7), and evidence of recent genetic bottlenecks. Major highways and a river were found to limit cottontail dispersal and to separate populations. The habitat along roadsides, railroad beds, and utility corridors, on the other hand, was found to facilitate cottontail movement among patches. The relative importance of dispersal barriers and facilitators on gene flow varied among populations in relation to landscape composition, demonstrating the complexity and context dependency of factors influencing gene flow and highlighting the importance of replication and scale in landscape genetic studies. Our findings provide information for the design of restoration landscapes for the New England cottontail and also highlight the dual influence of roads, as both barriers and facilitators of dispersal for an early successional habitat specialist in a fragmented landscape.

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