Pleistocene glaciations and contemporary genetic diversity in a Beringian fish, the broad whitefish, Coregonus nasus (Pallas): inferences from microsatellite DNA variation


Les N. Harris, Department of Zoology and Native Fishes Research Group, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada.
Tel.: +1 604 822 3377; fax: +1 604 822 2416; e-mail:


The contemporary distribution of genetic variation within and among high latitude populations cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration how species responded to the impacts of Pleistocene glaciations. Broad whitefish, Coregonus nasus, a species endemic to northwest North America and the Arctic coast of Russia, was undoubtedly impacted by such events because its geographic distribution suggests that it survived solely within the Beringian refuge from where it dispersed post-glacially to achieve its current range. We used microsatellite DNA to investigate the role of glaciations in promoting intraspecific genetic variation in broad whitefish (= 14 localities, 664 fish) throughout their North American range and in one Russian sample. Broad whitefish exhibited relatively high intrapopulation variation (average of 11.7 alleles per locus, average HE = 0.61) and moderate levels of interpopulation divergence (overall FST = 0.10). The main regions assayed in our study (Russia, Alaska, Mackenzie River and Travaillant Lake systems) were genetically differentiated from each other and there were declines in genetic diversity with distance from putative refugia. Additionally, Mackenzie River system populations showed less developed and more variable patterns of isolation-by-distance than populations occupying former Alaskan portions of Beringia. Finally, our data suggest that broad whitefish dispersed from Beringia using coastal environments and opportunistically via headwater stream connections that once existed between Yukon and Mackenzie River drainages. Our results illustrate the importance of history (e.g. glaciation) and contemporary dispersal ecology in shaping the current genetic population structure of Arctic faunas.