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Genetic structure of North American wolverine (Gulo gulo) populations


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Wolverines (Gulo gulo) are found in low densities throughout their circumpolar distribution. They are also potentially susceptible to human-caused population fragmentation (development, recreation and fur harvesting). The combination of these factors has contributed to this species being listed as having either vulnerable or endangered status across much of its current range. The effects of inherently low densities and anthropogenic pressures on the genetic structure and variation of wolverine populations are, as yet, unknown. In this study, 461 individuals were typed at 12 microsatellite loci to investigate the population genetic structure of wolverines from north-western Alaska to eastern Manitoba. Levels of gene flow and population differentiation among the sampled regions were estimated via a genotype assignment test, pairwise FST, and two genetic distance measures. Our results suggest that wolverine populations from southernmost regions, in which anthropogenic factors are strongest, revealed more genetic structuring than did northern populations. Furthermore, these results suggest that reductions in this species’ range may have led to population fragmentation in the extreme reaches of its southern distribution. The continued reduction of suitable habitat for this species may lead to more populations becoming isolated remnants of a larger distribution of northern wolverines, as documented in other North American carnivore species.