Blue-winged (Vermivora pinus) and golden-winged warblers (Vermivora chrysoptera) have an extensive mosaic hybrid zone in eastern North America. Over the past century, the general trajectory has been a rapid replacement of chrysoptera by pinus in a broad, northwardly moving area of contact. Previous mtDNA-based studies on these species’ hybridization dynamics have yielded variable results: asymmetric and rapid introgression from pinus into chrysoptera in some areas and bidirectional maternal gene flow in others. To further explore the hybridization genetics of this otherwise well-studied complex, we surveyed variation in three nuclear DNA marker types — microsatellites, introns, and a panel of amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) — with the goal of generating a multilocus assay of hybrid introgression. All markers were first tested on birds from phenotypically and mitochondrially pure parental-type populations from outside the hybrid zone. Searches for private alleles and assignment test approaches found no combination of microsatellite or intron markers that could separate the parental populations, but seven AFLP characters exhibited significant frequency differences among them. We then used the AFLP markers to examine the extent and pattern of introgression in a population where pinus-phenotype individuals have recently invaded a region that previously supported only a chrysoptera-phenotype population. Despite the low frequency of phenotypic hybrids at this location, the AFLP data suggest that almost a third of the phenotypically pure chrysoptera have introgressed genotypes, indicating the presence of substantial cryptic hybridization in the history of this species. The evidence for extensive cryptic introgression, combined with the lack of differentiation at other nuclear loci, cautions against hybrid assessments based on single markers or on phenotypic traits that are likely to be determined by a small number of loci. Considered in concert, these results from four classes of molecular markers indicate that pinus and chrysoptera are surprisingly weakly differentiated and that far fewer genetically ‘pure’ populations of chrysoptera may exist than previously assumed, two findings with broad implications for the conservation of this rapidly declining taxon.
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