1. The application of population genetic analysis and molecular ecological approaches allows us to examine the invasion of species in the wild. In particular, we can gain an insight into the role of dispersal, a key determinant of the invasion and population dynamics of important pest species. Since the 1980s, severe outbreaks of the winter moth, Operophtera brumata (Linnaeus), have caused extensive damage to heather moorlands in the Orkney Isles. The population genetic structure of O. brumata in Orkney was examined in order to establish whether the widely dispersed outbreaking populations are connected.
2. Amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) analysis showed a high level of genetic diversity within subpopulations. This is consistent with an initial mass colonisation event and/or continuing dispersal between populations of O. brumata in Orkney.
3. Genetic differentiation among populations is low, and although some weak isolation by distance is detectable, no effect of isolation as a result of a sea barrier was found. High gene flow between populations is consistent with the low genetic differentiation observed, although there is evidence to suggest that the populations are not panmictic.
4. Given the limited dispersal of adults, the present results suggest that larvae may disperse over considerable distances by ballooning on strong winds across the Orkney Isles.