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Keywords:

  • connectivity;
  • gene flow;
  • metapopulation;
  • microsatellites;
  • migration;
  • vernal ponds

Abstract

We examined fine-scale genetic variation among breeding aggregations of the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) to quantify dispersal, interpopulation connectivity and population genetic structure. Spotted salamanders rely on temporary ponds or wetlands for aggregate breeding. Adequate breeding sites are relatively isolated from one another and field studies suggest considerable adult site fidelity; therefore, we expected to find population structure and differentiation at small spatial scales. We used microsatellites to estimate population structure and dispersal among 29 breeding aggregations in Tompkins County, New York, USA, an area encompassing 1272 km2. Bayesian and frequency-based analyses revealed fine-scale genetic structure with two genetically defined demes: the North deme included seven breeding ponds, and the South deme included 13 ponds. Nine ponds showed evidence of admixture between these two genetic pools. Bayesian assignment tests for detection of interpopulation dispersal indicate that immigration among ponds is common within demes, and that certain populations serve as sources of immigrants to neighbouring ponds. Likewise, spatial genetic correlation analyses showed that populations ≤ 4.8 km distant from each other show significant genetic correlation that is not evident at higher scales. Within-population levels of relatedness are consistently larger than expected if mating were completely random across ponds, and in the case of a few ponds, within-population processes such as inbreeding or reproductive skew contribute significantly to differentiation from neighbouring ponds. Our data underscore the importance of these within-population processes as a source of genetic diversity across the landscape, despite considerable population connectivity. Our data further suggest that spotted salamander breeding groups behave as metapopulations, with population clusters as functional units, but sufficient migration among demes to allow for potential rescue and recolonization. Amphibian habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented and a clear understanding of dispersal and patterns of population connectivity for taxa with different ecologies and life histories is crucial for their conservation.