Genetic structure in large, continuous mammal populations: the example of brown bears in northwestern Eurasia


U. Saarma, Fax: +372 7375830; E-mail:


Knowledge of population structure and genetic diversity and the spatio-temporal demographic processes affecting populations is crucial for effective wildlife preservation, yet these factors are still poorly understood for organisms with large continuous ranges. Available population genetic data reveal that widespread mammals have for the most part only been carefully studied at the local population scale, which is insufficient for understanding population processes at larger scales. Here, we provide data on population structure, genetic diversity and gene flow in a brown bear population inhabiting the large territory of northwestern Eurasia. Analysis of 17 microsatellite loci indicated significant population substructure, consisting of four genetic groups. While three genetic clusters were confined to small geographical areas—located in Estonia, southern Finland and Leningrad oblast, Russia—the fourth cluster spanned a very large area broadly falling between northern Finland and the Arkhangelsk and Kirov oblasts of Russia. Thus, the data indicate a complex pattern where a fraction of the population exhibits large-scale gene flow that is unparalleled by other wild mammals studied to date, while the remainder of the population appears to have been structured by a combination of demographic history and landscape barriers. These results based on nuclear data are generally in good agreement with evidence previously derived using mitochondrial markers, and taken together, these markers provide complementary information about female-specific and population-level processes. Moreover, this study conveys information about spatial processes occurring over multiple generations that cannot be readily gained using other approaches, e.g. telemetry.