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Highways block gene flow and cause a rapid decline in genetic diversity of desert bighorn sheep



The rapid expansion of road networks has reduced connectivity among populations of flora and fauna. The resulting isolation is assumed to increase population extinction rates, in part because of the loss of genetic diversity. However, there are few cases where loss of genetic diversity has been linked directly to roads or other barriers. We analysed the effects of such barriers on connectivity and genetic diversity of 27 populations of Ovis canadensis nelsoni (desert bighorn sheep). We used partial Mantel tests, multiple linear regression and coalescent simulations to infer changes in gene flow and diversity of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA markers. Our findings link a rapid reduction in genetic diversity (up to 15%) to as few as 40 years of anthropogenic isolation. Interstate highways, canals and developed areas, where present, have apparently eliminated gene flow. These results suggest that anthropogenic barriers constitute a severe threat to the persistence of naturally fragmented populations.