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Genetic divergence and migration patterns in a North American passerine bird: implications for evolution and conservation


Michael Webster, Fax: 509-335-3184; E-mail:


Like many other migratory birds, the black-throated blue warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) shows pronounced differences in migratory behaviour and other traits between populations: birds in the southern part of the breeding range have darker plumage and migrate to the eastern Caribbean during the winter, whereas those in the north have lighter plumage and migrate to the western Caribbean. We examined the phylogeography of this species, using samples collected from northern and southern populations, to determine whether differentiation between these populations dates to the Pleistocene or earlier, or whether differences in plumage and migratory behaviour have arisen more recently. We analysed variation at 369 bp of the mitochondrial control region domain I and also at seven nuclear microsatellites. Analyses revealed considerable genetic variation, but the vast majority of this variation was found within rather than between populations, and there was little differentiation between northern and southern populations. Phylogeographic analyses revealed a very shallow phylogenetic tree, a star-like haplotype network, and a unimodal mismatch distribution, all indicative of a recent range expansion from a single refugium. Coalescent modelling approaches also indicated a recent common ancestor for the entire group of birds analysed, no split between northern and southern populations, and high levels of gene flow. These results show that Pleistocene or earlier events have played little role in creating differences between northern and southern populations, suggesting that migratory and other differences between populations have arisen very recently. The implications of these results for the evolution of migration and defining taxonomic groups for conservation efforts are discussed.