Occasional crossbreeding between free-ranging domestic dogs and wild wolves (Canis lupus) has been detected in some European countries by mitochondrial DNA sequencing and genotyping unlinked microsatellite loci. Maternal and unlinked genomic markers, however, might underestimate the extent of introgressive hybridization, and their impacts on the preservation of wild wolf gene pools. In this study, we genotyped 220 presumed Italian wolves, 85 dogs and 7 known hybrids at 16 microsatellites belonging to four different linkage groups (plus four unlinked microsatellites). Population clustering and individual assignments were performed using a Bayesian procedure implemented in structure 2.1, which models the gametic disequilibrium arising between linked loci during admixtures, aiming to trace hybridization events further back in time and infer the population of origin of chromosomal blocks. Results indicate that (i) linkage disequilibrium was higher in wolves than in dogs; (ii) 11 out of 220 wolves (5.0%) were likely admixed, a proportion that is significantly higher than one admixed genotype in 107 wolves found previously in a study using unlinked markers; (iii) posterior maximum-likelihood estimates of the recombination parameter r revealed that introgression in Italian wolves is not recent, but could have continued for the last 70 (± 20) generations, corresponding to approximately 140–210 years. Bayesian clustering showed that, despite some admixture, wolf and dog gene pools remain sharply distinct (the average proportions of membership to wolf and dog clusters were Qw = 0.95 and Qd = 0.98, respectively), suggesting that hybridization was not frequent, and that introgression in nature is counteracted by behavioural or selective constraints.
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