• eastern massasauga rattlesnake;
  • effective population size;
  • historical and contemporary gene flow;
  • microsatellite DNA loci;
  • population differentiation


Populations of endangered taxa in recently fragmented habitats often show high levels of genetic structure, but the role that contemporary versus historical processes play in generating this pattern is unclear. The eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus c. catenatus) is an endangered snake that presently occurs throughout central and eastern North America in a series of populations that are isolated because of habitat fragmentation and destruction. Here, we use data from 19 species-specific microsatellite DNA loci to assess the levels of genetic differentiation, genetic effective population size, and contemporary and historical levels of gene flow for 19 populations sampled across the range of this snake. Eastern massasaugas display high levels of genetic differentiation (overall θFst = 0.21) and a Bayesian clustering method indicates that each population represents a unique genetic cluster even at regional spatial scales. There is a twofold variation in genetically effective population sizes but little genetic evidence that populations have undergone recent or historical declines in size. Finally, both contemporary and historical migration rates among populations were low and similar in magnitude even for populations located <7 km apart. A test of alternate models of population history strongly favours a model of long-term drift-migration equilibrium over a recent isolation drift-only model. These results suggest that recent habitat fragmentation has had little effect on the genetic characteristics of these snakes, but rather that this species has historically existed in small isolated populations that may be resistant to the long-term negative effects of inbreeding.