From the Apennines to the Alps: colonization genetics of the naturally expanding Italian wolf (Canis lupus) population


Ettore Randi, Fax: +39051796628; E-mail:


Wolves in Italy strongly declined in the past and were confined south of the Alps since the turn of the last century, reduced in the 1970s to approximately 100 individuals surviving in two fragmented subpopulations in the central-southern Apennines. The Italian wolves are presently expanding in the Apennines, and started to recolonize the western Alps in Italy, France and Switzerland about 16 years ago. In this study, we used a population genetic approach to elucidate some aspects of the wolf recolonization process. DNA extracted from 3068 tissue and scat samples collected in the Apennines (the source populations) and in the Alps (the colony), were genotyped at 12 microsatellite loci aiming to assess (i) the strength of the bottleneck and founder effects during the onset of colonization; (ii) the rates of gene flow between source and colony; and (iii) the minimum number of colonizers that are needed to explain the genetic variability observed in the colony. We identified a total of 435 distinct wolf genotypes, which showed that wolves in the Alps: (i) have significantly lower genetic diversity (heterozygosity, allelic richness, number of private alleles) than wolves in the Apennines; (ii) are genetically distinct using pairwise FST values, population assignment test and Bayesian clustering; (iii) are not in genetic equilibrium (significant bottleneck test). Spatial autocorrelations are significant among samples separated up to c. 230 km, roughly correspondent to the apparent gap in permanent wolf presence between the Alps and north Apennines. The estimated number of first-generation migrants indicates that migration has been unidirectional and male-biased, from the Apennines to the Alps, and that wolves in southern Italy did not contribute to the Alpine population. These results suggest that: (i) the Alps were colonized by a few long-range migrating wolves originating in the north Apennine subpopulation; (ii) during the colonization process there has been a moderate bottleneck; and (iii) gene flow between sources and colonies was moderate (corresponding to 1.25–2.50 wolves per generation), despite high potential for dispersal. Bottleneck simulations showed that a total of c. 8–16 effective founders are needed to explain the genetic diversity observed in the Alps. Levels of genetic diversity in the expanding Alpine wolf population, and the permanence of genetic structuring, will depend on the future rates of gene flow among distinct wolf subpopulation fragments.