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Contrasting demographic and genetic estimates of dispersal in the endangered Coahuilan box turtle: a contemporary approach to conservation



    1. Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station C0930, Austin, TX 78712, USA,
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    1. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, 251 Bessey Hall, Ames, IA 50011, USA,
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    1. Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station C0930, Austin, TX 78712, USA,
    2. Texas Natural Science Center, Texas Natural History Collection, University of Texas at Austin, PRC 176/R4000, 10100 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78758, USA
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Jennifer G. Howeth, Fax: 512 471 3878; E-mail:


The evolutionary viability of an endangered species depends upon gene flow among subpopulations and the degree of habitat patch connectivity. Contrasting population connectivity over ecological and evolutionary timescales may provide novel insight into what maintains genetic diversity within threatened species. We employed this integrative approach to evaluating dispersal in the critically endangered Coahuilan box turtle (Terrapene coahuila) that inhabits isolated wetlands in the desert-spring ecosystem of Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico. Recent wetland habitat loss has altered the spatial distribution and connectivity of habitat patches; and we therefore predicted that T. coahuila would exhibit limited movement relative to estimates of historic gene flow. To evaluate contemporary dispersal patterns, we employed mark–recapture techniques at both local (wetland complex) and regional (intercomplex) spatial scales. Gene flow estimates were obtained by surveying genetic variation at nine microsatellite loci in seven subpopulations located across the species’ geographical range. The mark–recapture results at the local spatial scale reveal frequent movement among wetlands that was unaffected by interwetland distance. At the regional spatial scale, dispersal events were relatively less frequent between wetland complexes. The complementary analysis of population genetic substructure indicates strong historic gene flow (global FST = 0.01). However, a relationship of genetic isolation by distance across the geographical range suggests that dispersal limitation exists at the regional scale. Our approach of contrasting direct and indirect estimates of dispersal at multiple spatial scales in T. coahuila conveys a sustainable evolutionary trajectory of the species pending preservation of threatened wetland habitats and a range-wide network of corridors.