Evidence for habitat fragmentation altering within-population processes in wombats


Faith M. Walker, 2700 Woodlands Village Blvd, Suite 300-407, Flagstaff, AZ, 86001, USA. Fax: (928)773-9201; E-mail: faith.walker@nau.edu


Habitat fragmentation and associated reduced dispersal of wildlife can lead to an accumulation of related individuals in fragments. The altered kin interactions and amplified chance of inbred matings has profound implications for mating and social systems, and ultimately population persistence. Nonetheless, within-fragment population processes are rarely studied. With this aim, we examined relatedness structure in two candidate isolated populations (Kulpara and Scrubby Peak) of southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons). Wombats were sampled by remote hair-trapping for genotyping at 14 microsatellite loci, enabling individual identification and estimation of space-use and associative behaviour with respect to relatedness. Genetic data indicated that Scrubby Peak was not strongly isolated, against predictions from landscape structure and history. In isolated Kulpara, inhibited female dispersal (normally the dispersing sex) was associated with high population density and altered kin relationships. First, female relatives preferentially coexisted, a radical departure from the previously reported active avoidance of female relatives in continuous habitat. This is consistent with females in altered habitat interacting with more- rather than less-related females to minimize the cost:benefit ratio of proximity to other wombats. Second, inbreeding avoidance appeared to be stronger at Kulpara than in conspecific populations with natural population structures. Although these adaptive behaviours may have contributed to persistence of the Kulpara population in the short term, they are unlikely to ensure its long-term viability in the face of ongoing isolation because they can act only to slow the rate of inbreeding and mitigate some of its negative impacts.