Population structure of North American beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) based on nuclear DNA microsatellite variation and contrasted with the population structure revealed by mitochondrial DNA variation


J. G. Brown Gladden Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3E 0V9. Fax: +01-204-787-2190; E-mail: tgladden@mts.net


Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in North American waters migrate seasonally between wintering areas in broken pack ice and summering locations in estuaries and other open water areas in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Results from our previous investigation of beluga whale mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) revealed genetic heterogeneity among beluga from different summering locations that was interpreted as representing a high degree of summering site philopatry. However, mtDNA is maternally inherited and does not reflect mating that may occur among beluga from different summering locations in wintering areas or during annual migrations. To test the possibility that breeding occurs among beluga from different summering locations, genetic variability at five nuclear DNA (nDNA) microsatellite loci was examined in the same animals tested in the mtDNA study. Beluga samples (n = 640) were collected between 1984 and 1994 from 24 sites across North America, mostly during the summer. Whales from the various sites were categorized into eight summering locations as identified by mtDNA analysis, as well as four hypothesized wintering areas: Bering Sea, Hudson Strait (Hudson Strait, Labrador Sea, southwest Davis Strait), Baffin Bay (North Water, east Davis Strait), and St Lawrence River. Microsatellite allele frequencies indicated genetic homogeneity among animals from summering sites believed to winter together but differentiation among whales from some of the wintering areas. In particular, beluga from western North America (Bering Sea) were clearly distinguished from beluga from eastern North America (Hudson Strait, Baffin Bay, and St Lawrence River). Based upon the combined data set, the population of North American beluga whales was divided into two evolutionarily significant units. However, the population may be further subdivided into management units to reflect distinct groups of beluga at summering locations.