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Keywords:

  • Bayesian inference;
  • Canis lupus;
  • coalescent;
  • demographic history;
  • microsatellites;
  • mtDNA control-region;
  • population structure;
  • wolf

Abstract

Historical information suggests the occurrence of an extensive human-caused contraction in the distribution range of wolves (Canis lupus) during the last few centuries in Europe. Wolves disappeared from the Alps in the 1920s, and thereafter continued to decline in peninsular Italy until the 1970s, when approximately 100 individuals survived, isolated in the central Apennines. In this study we performed a coalescent analysis of multilocus DNA markers to infer patterns and timing of historical population changes in wolves surviving in the Apennines. This population showed a unique mitochondrial DNA control-region haplotype, the absence of private alleles and lower heterozygosity at microsatellite loci, as compared to other wolf populations. Multivariate, clustering and Bayesian assignment procedures consistently assigned all the wolf genotypes sampled in Italy to a single group, supporting their genetic distinction. Bottleneck tests showed evidences of population decline in the Italian wolves, but not in other populations. Results of a Bayesian coalescent model indicate that wolves in Italy underwent a 100- to 1000-fold population contraction over the past 2000–10 000 years. The population decline was stronger and longer in peninsular Italy than elsewhere in Europe, suggesting that wolves have apparently been genetically isolated for thousands of generations south of the Alps. Ice caps covering the Alps at the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 18 000 years before present), and the wide expansion of the Po River, which cut the alluvial plains throughout the Holocene, might have provided effective geographical barriers to wolf dispersal. More recently, the admixture of Alpine and Apennine wolf populations could have been prevented by deforestation, which was already widespread in the fifteenth century in northern Italy. This study suggests that, despite the high potential rates of dispersal and gene flow, local wolf populations may not have mixed for long periods of time.