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Keywords:

  • conservation;
  • control region;
  • Lepidochelys olivacea;
  • marine turtles;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • olive ridley

Abstract

Previous studies of the olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea population structure in the tropical eastern Pacific have indicated the existence of a single panmictic population ranging from Costa Rica to Mexico. This information has been used to design specific management measures to conserve primary nesting beaches in Mexico. However, little is known about olive ridleys in the Baja California Peninsula, their northernmost reproductive limit, where recent observations have shown differences in nesting female behaviour and size of hatchlings relative to other continental rookeries. We used mtDNA control region sequences from 137 turtles from five continental and four peninsular nesting sites to determine whether such differences correspond to a genetic distinction of Baja California olive ridleys or to phenotypic plasticity associated with the extreme environmental nesting conditions of this region. We found that genetic diversity in peninsular turtles was significantly lower than in continental nesting colonies. Analysis of molecular variance revealed a significant population structure (ΦST = 0.048, P = 0.006) with the inclusion of peninsular samples. Our results: (i) suggest that the observed phenotypic variation may be associated with genetic differentiation and reproductive isolation; (ii) support the recent colonization of the eastern Pacific by Lepidochelys; (iii) reveal genetic signatures of historical expansion and colonization events; and (iv) significantly challenge the notion of a single genetic and conservation unit of olive ridleys in the eastern Pacific. We conclude that conservation measures for olive ridleys in Mexico should be revised to grant peninsular beaches special attention.