Contrasting patterns of mitochondrial and microsatellite population structure in fragmented populations of greater prairie-chickens


P. O. Dunn. Fax: 414 2293926; E-mail:


Greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) were once found throughout the tallgrass prairie of midwestern North America but over the last century these prairies have been lost or fragmented by human land use. As a consequence, many current populations of prairie-chickens have become isolated and small. This fragmentation of populations is expected to lead to reductions in genetic variation as a result of random genetic drift and a decrease in gene flow. As expected, we found that genetic variation at both microsatellite DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers was reduced in smaller populations, particularly in Wisconsin. There was relatively little range-wide geographical structure (FST) when we examined mtDNA haplotypes but there was a significant positive relationship between genetic (FST) and geographical distance (isolation by distance). In contrast, microsatellite DNA loci revealed significant geographical structure (FST) and a weak effect of isolation by distance throughout the range. These patterns were much stronger when populations with reduced levels of genetic variability (Wisconsin) were removed from the analyses. This suggests that the effects of genetic drift were stronger than gene flow at microsatellite loci, whereas these forces were in range-wide equilibrium at mtDNA markers. These differences between the two molecular markers may be explained by a larger effective population size (Ne) for mtDNA, which is expected in species such as prairie-chickens that have female-biased dispersal and high levels of polygyny. Our results suggest that historic populations of prairie-chickens were once interconnected by gene flow but current populations are now isolated. Thus, maintaining gene flow may be important for the long-term persistence of prairie-chicken populations.