What can genetics tell us about population connectivity?



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Corrigendum Volume 19, Issue 23, 5320, Article first published online: 28 October 2010

Winsor H. Lowe, Fax: +1 406 243 4184; E-mail: winsor.lowe@umontana.edu


Genetic data are often used to assess ‘population connectivity’ because it is difficult to measure dispersal directly at large spatial scales. Genetic connectivity, however, depends primarily on the absolute number of dispersers among populations, whereas demographic connectivity depends on the relative contributions to population growth rates of dispersal vs. local recruitment (i.e. survival and reproduction of residents). Although many questions are best answered with data on genetic connectivity, genetic data alone provide little information on demographic connectivity. The importance of demographic connectivity is clear when the elimination of immigration results in a shift from stable or positive population growth to negative population growth. Otherwise, the amount of dispersal required for demographic connectivity depends on the context (e.g. conservation or harvest management), and even high dispersal rates may not indicate demographic interdependence. Therefore, it is risky to infer the importance of demographic connectivity without information on local demographic rates and how those rates vary over time. Genetic methods can provide insight on demographic connectivity when combined with these local demographic rates, data on movement behaviour, or estimates of reproductive success of immigrants and residents. We also consider the strengths and limitations of genetic measures of connectivity and discuss three concepts of genetic connectivity that depend upon the evolutionary criteria of interest: inbreeding connectivity, drift connectivity, and adaptive connectivity. To conclude, we describe alternative approaches for assessing population connectivity, highlighting the value of combining genetic data with capture-mark-recapture methods or other direct measures of movement to elucidate the complex role of dispersal in natural populations.