Genetic and ecological data provide incongruent interpretations of population structure and dispersal in naturally subdivided populations of white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura)


  • B. C. FEDY,

    1. Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, Natural Science Room 205, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA,
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  • K. MARTIN,

    1. Centre for Applied Conservation Research, Department of Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, 3004-2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4,
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    1. Department of Forest Sciences, Genetic Data Centre, University of British Columbia, 3611-2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4,
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  • J. YOUNG

    1. Department of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Western State College of Colorado, Gunnison, Colorado 81231, USA
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Bradley C. Fedy, Fax: 406-243-6064; E-mail:


The dispersal of individuals among populations affects the demographic and adaptive trajectories of animal populations and is fundamental to understanding population dynamics. White-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) are a high elevation grouse species that live year-round in patchily distributed alpine areas in western North America. We investigated the patterns of dispersal and identified barriers to gene flow for a threatened subspecies (L. l. saxatilis) endemic to Vancouver Island, Canada. Connectivity among seven sites was examined using nine microsatellite loci (n = 133 individuals, HO = 0.62, mean number of alleles = 10) and direct movement observations using radio-telemetry (n = 118 individuals). Average movement distances of individuals measured by radio-telemetry were 0.63–3.23 km and considerably less than the shortest distance between sampling sites (18 km). Furthermore, despite extensive radio-telemetry data, movement was never observed between any of the seven sampling sites. In contrast, genetic results (structure, tess) showed connectivity among most of the seven sampling sites and suggested that genetic variation is best explained by two clusters of individuals which separated the South sampling site from all other areas of Vancouver Island. Analysis of molecular data also showed a generally consistent pattern of isolation by distance (Mantel test r = 0.11, P < 0.01) with large areas of unsuitable low elevation habitat possibly acting as barriers to gene flow. Despite the naturally subdivided distribution of populations, white-tailed ptarmigan do not fit well into any common definition of a metapopulation. We conclude the incongruities between the genetic and radio-telemetry data are best explained by episodic dispersal patterns. In this study, we demonstrated the importance of combining genetic and ecological data in understanding patterns of dispersal and population structure.