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Keywords:

  • assignment;
  • habitat fragmentation;
  • population genetics;
  • population structure;
  • urban wildlife;
  • zoonotic diseases

Abstract

Movement of individuals promotes colonization of new areas, gene flow among local populations, and has implications for the spread of infectious agents and the control of pest species. Wild Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) are common in highly urbanized areas but surprisingly little is known of their population structure. We sampled individuals from 11 locations within Baltimore, Maryland, to characterize the genetic structure and extent of gene flow between areas within the city. Clustering methods and a neighbour-joining tree based on pairwise genetic distances supported an east–west division in the inner city, and a third cluster comprised of historically more recent sites. Most individuals (~95%) were assigned to their area of capture, indicating strong site fidelity. Moreover, the axial dispersal distance of rats (62 m) fell within typical alley length. Several rats were assigned to areas 2–11.5 km away, indicating some, albeit infrequent, long-distance movement within the city. Although individual movement appears to be limited (30–150 m), locations up to 1.7 km are comprised of relatives. Moderate FST, differentiation between identified clusters, and high allelic diversity indicate that regular gene flow, either via recruitment or migration, has prevented isolation. Therefore, ecology of commensal rodents in urban areas and life-history characteristics of Norway rats likely counteract many expected effects of isolation or founder events. An understanding of levels of connectivity of rat populations inhabiting urban areas provides information about the spatial scale at which populations of rats may spread disease, invade new areas, or be eradicated from an existing area without reinvasion.