Ancestral polymorphisms in genetic markers obscure detection of evolutionarily distinct populations in the endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus)


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    Current address: Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, 1735 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43120–1293, USA.

    ¶Current address: Center for Ecological Research, Richmond, ME, 04357 USA.

and current address: H. Lisle Gibbs, Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, 1735 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43120–1293, USA. Fax: 614 2922030; E-mail:


Genetic analyses of bird subspecies designated as conservation units can address whether they represent units with independent evolutionary histories and provide insights into the evolutionary processes that determine the degree to which they are genetically distinct. Here we use mitochondrial DNA control region sequence and six microsatellite DNA loci to examine phylogeographical structure and genetic differentiation among five North American grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) populations representing three subspecies, including a population of the endangered Florida subspecies (A. s. floridanus). This federally listed taxon is of particular interest because it differs phenotypically from other subspecies in plumage and behaviour and has also undergone a drastic decline in population size over the past century. Despite this designation, we observed no phylogeographical structure among populations in either marker: mtDNA haplotypes and microsatellite genotypes from floridanus samples did not form clades that were phylogenetically distinct from variants found in other subspecies. However, there was low but significant differentiation between Florida and all other populations combined in both mtDNA (FST = 0.069) and in one measure of microsatellite differentiation (θ = 0.016), while the non-Florida populations were not different from each other. Based on analyses of mtDNA variation using a coalescent-based model, the effective sizes of these populations are large (∼80 000 females) and they have only recently diverged from each other (< 26 000 ybp). These populations are probably far from genetic equilibrium and therefore the lack of phylogenetic distinctiveness of the floridanus subspecies and minimal genetic differentiation is due most probably to retained ancestral polymorphism. Finally, levels of variation in Florida were similar to other populations supporting the idea that the drastic reduction in population size which has occurred within the last 100 years has not yet had an impact on levels of variation in floridanus. We argue that despite the lack of phylogenetic distinctiveness of floridanus genotypes the observed genetic differentiation and previously documented phenotypic differences justify continued designation of this subspecies as a protected population segment.