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Keywords:

  • European grayling;
  • Adriatic;
  • genetic introgression;
  • freshwater fish conservation;
  • Approximate Bayesian Computation

Abstract

The definition of conservation units is crucial for the sustainable management of endangered species, though particularly challenging when recent and past anthropogenic and natural gene flow might have played a role. The conservation of the European grayling, Thymallus thymallus, is particularly complex in its southern distribution area, where the Adriatic evolutionary lineage is endangered by a long history of anthropogenic disturbance, intensive stocking and potentially widespread genetic introgression. We provide mtDNA sequence and microsatellite data of 683 grayling from 30 sites of Adriatic as well as Danubian and Atlantic origin. We apply Bayesian clustering and Approximate Bayesian Computation (ABC) to detect microgeographic population structure and to infer the demographic history of the Adriatic populations, to define appropriate conservation units. Varying frequencies of indigenous genetic signatures of the Adriatic grayling were revealed, spanning from marginal genetic introgression to the collapse of native gene pools. Genetic introgression involved multiple exotic source populations of Danubian and Atlantic origin, thus evidencing the negative impact of few decades of stocking. Within the Adige River system, a contact zone of western Adriatic and eastern Danubian populations was detected, with ABC analyses suggesting a historical anthropogenic origin of eastern Adige populations, most likely founded by medieval translocations. Substantial river-specific population substructure within the Adriatic grayling Evolutionary Significant Unit points to the definition of different conservation units. We finally propose a catalog of management measures, including the legal prohibition of stocking exotic grayling and the use of molecular markers in supportive- and captive-breeding programs.