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Keywords:

  • ancient DNA;
  • conservation genetics;
  • heath hen;
  • mtDNA;
  • population introduction;
  • Tympanuchus

Abstract

Population introduction is an important tool for ecosystem restoration. However, before introductions should be conducted, it is important to evaluate the genetic, phenotypic and ecological suitability of possible replacement populations. Careful genetic analysis is particularly important if it is suspected that the extirpated population was unique or genetically divergent. On the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, the introduction of greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) to replace the extinct heath hen (T. cupido cupido) is being considered as part of an ecosystem restoration project. Martha's Vineyard was home to the last remaining heath hen population until its extinction in 1932. We conducted this study to aid in determining the suitability of greater prairie chickens as a possible replacement for the heath hen. We examined mitochondrial control region sequences from extant populations of all prairie grouse species (Tympanuchus) and from museum skin heath hen specimens. Our data suggest that the Martha's Vineyard heath hen population represents a divergent mitochondrial lineage. This result is attributable either to a long period of geographical isolation from other prairie grouse populations or to a population bottleneck resulting from human disturbance. The mtDNA diagnosability of the heath hen contrasts with the network of mtDNA haplotypes of other prairie grouse (T. cupido attwateri, T. pallidicinctus and T. phasianellus), which do not form distinguishable mtDNA groupings. Our findings suggest that the Martha's Vineyard heath hen was more genetically isolated than are current populations of prairie grouse and place the emphasis for future research on examining prairie grouse adaptations to different habitat types to assess ecological exchangeability between heath hens and greater prairie chickens.