Aim This study investigated the influence of contemporary habitat loss on the genetic diversity and structure of animal species using a common, but ecologically specialized, butterfly, Theclinesthes albocincta (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae), as a model.
Location South Australia.
Methods We used amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) and allozyme datasets to investigate the genetic structure and genetic diversity among populations of T. albocincta in a fragmented landscape and compared this diversity and structure with that of populations in two nearby landscapes that have more continuous distributions of butterflies and their habitat. Butterflies were sampled from 15 sites and genotyped, first using 363 informative AFLP bands and then using 17 polymorphic allozyme loci (n = 248 and 254, respectively). We complemented these analyses with phylogeographic information based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotype information derived from a previous study in the same landscapes.
Results Both datasets indicated a relatively high level of genetic structuring across the sampling range (AFLP, FST = 0.34; allozyme, FST = 0.13): structure was greatest among populations in the fragmented landscape (AFLP, FST = 0.15; allozyme, FST = 0.13). Populations in the fragmented landscape also had significantly lower genetic diversity than populations in the other two landscapes: there were no detectable differences in genetic diversity between the two continuous landscapes. There was also evidence (r2 = 0.33) of an isolation by distance effect across the sampled range of the species.
Main conclusions The multiple lines of evidence, presented within a phylogeographic context, support the hypothesis that contemporary habitat fragmentation has been a major driver of genetic erosion and differentiation in this species. Theclinesthes albocincta populations in the fragmented landscape are thus likely to be at greater risk of extinction because of reduced genetic diversity, their isolation from conspecific subpopulations in other landscapes, and other extrinsic forces acting on their small population sizes. Our study provides compelling evidence that habitat loss and fragmentation have significant rapid impacts on the genetic diversity and structure of butterfly populations, especially specialist species with particular habitat preferences and poor dispersal abilities.