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The genetic structure of Australasian green turtles (Chelonia mydas): exploring the geographical scale of genetic exchange

Authors


Kiki E.M. Dethmers, Present address: The Ecology Centre, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072 Australia. Fax: +61 73365 1655; E-mail: dethmers@aerg.canberra.edu.au

Abstract

Ecological and genetic studies of marine turtles generally support the hypothesis of natal homing, but leave open the question of the geographical scale of genetic exchange and the capacity of turtles to shift breeding sites. Here we combine analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation and recapture data to assess the geographical scale of individual breeding populations and the distribution of such populations through Australasia. We conducted multiscale assessments of mtDNA variation among 714 samples from 27 green turtle rookeries and of adult female dispersal among nesting sites in eastern Australia. Many of these rookeries are on shelves that were flooded by rising sea levels less than 10 000 years (c. 450 generations) ago. Analyses of sequence variation among the mtDNA control region revealed 25 haplotypes, and their frequency distributions indicated 17 genetically distinct breeding stocks (Management Units) consisting either of individual rookeries or groups of rookeries in general that are separated by more than 500 km. The population structure inferred from mtDNA was consistent with the scale of movements observed in long-term mark–recapture studies of east Australian rookeries. Phylogenetic analysis of the haplotypes revealed five clades with significant partitioning of sequence diversity (Φ = 68.4) between Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asian/Indian Ocean rookeries. Isolation by distance was indicated for rookeries separated by up to 2000 km but explained only 12% of the genetic structure. The emerging general picture is one of dynamic population structure influenced by the capacity of females to relocate among proximal breeding sites, although this may be conditional on large population sizes as existed historically across this region.

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