• Cetacean;
  • dispersal;
  • microsatellite;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • phylogeography;
  • population structure


The marine environment provides an opportunity to examine population structure in species with high dispersal capabilities and often no obvious barriers to genetic exchange. In coastal waters of the western North Atlantic, common bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, are a highly mobile species with a continuous distribution from New York to Florida. We examine if the highly mobile nature coupled with no obvious geographic barriers to movement in this region result in a large panmictic population. Mitochondrial control region sequences and 18 microsatellite loci indicate dolphins are partitioning the habitat both latitudinally and longitudinally. A minimum of five genetically differentiated populations were identified among 404 samples collected in the range of New Jersey to northern Florida using both genetic marker types, some inhabiting nearshore coastal waters and others utilizing inshore estuarine waters. The genetic results reject the hypothesis of a single stock of coastal bottlenose dolphins put forth after the 1987–1988 epizootic that caused a large-scale die-off of dolphins and suggest instead the disease vector was transferred from one population to the next as a result of seasonal migratory movements of some populations. These coastal Atlantic populations also differ significantly from bottlenose dolphin samples collected in coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, implying a long-term barrier to movement between the two basins.