1. How species reach and persist in isolated habitats remains an open question in many cases, especially for rapidly spreading invasive species. This is particularly true for temporary freshwater ponds, which can be remote and may dry out annually, but may still harbour high biodiversity. Persistence in such habitats depends on recurrent colonisation or species survival capacity, and ponds therefore provide an ideal system to investigate dispersal and connectivity.
2. Here, we test the hypothesis that the wide distributions and invasive potential of aquatic snails is due to their ability to exploit several dispersal vectors in different landscapes. We explored the population structure of Physa acuta (recent synonyms: Haitia acuta, Physella acuta, Pulmonata: Gastropoda), an invasive aquatic snail originating from North America, but established in temporary ponds in Doñana National Park, southern Spain. In this area, snails face land barriers when attempting to colonise other suitable habitat.
3. Genetic analyses using six microsatellite loci from 271 snails in 21 sites indicated that (i) geographically and hydrologically isolated snail populations in the park were genetically similar to a large snail population in rice fields more than 15 km away; (ii) these isolated ponds showed an isolation-by-distance pattern. This pattern broke down, however, for those ponds visited frequently by large mammals such as cattle, deer and wild boar; (iii) snail populations were panmictic in flooded and hydrologically connected rice fields.
4. These results support the notion that aquatic snails disperse readily by direct water connections in the flooded rice fields, can be carried by waterbirds flying between the rice fields and the park and may disperse between ponds within the park by attaching to large mammals.
5. The potential for aquatic snails such as Physa acuta to exploit several dispersal vectors may contribute to their wide distribution on various continents and their success as invasive species. We suggest that the interaction between different dispersal vectors, their relation to specific habitats and consequences at different geographic scales should be considered both when attempting to control invasive freshwater species and when protecting endangered species.