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Estimating population structure under nonequilibrium conditions in a conservation context: continent-wide population genetics of the giant Amazon river turtle, Podocnemis expansa (Chelonia; Podocnemididae)


Devon E. Pearse, Present address: NOAA Fisheries, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, 110 Shaffer Rd., Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA. Fax: 831-420-3977; Email:


Giant Amazon river turtles, Podocnemis expansa, are indigenous to the Amazon, Orinoco, and Essequibo River basins, and are distributed across nearly the entire width of the South American continent. Although once common, their large size, high fecundity, and gregarious nesting, made P. expansa especially vulnerable to over-harvesting for eggs and meat. Populations have been severely reduced or extirpated in many areas throughout its range, and the species is now regulated under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Here, we analyse data from mitochondrial DNA sequence and multiple nuclear microsatellite markers with an array of complementary analytical methods. Results show that concordance from multiple data sets and analyses can provide a strong signal of population genetic structure that can be used to guide management. The general lack of phylogeographic structure but large differences in allele and haplotype frequencies among river basins is consistent with fragmented populations and female natal-river homing. Overall, the DNA data show that P. expansa populations lack a long history of genetic differentiation, but that each major tributary currently forms a semi-isolated reproductive population and should be managed accordingly.