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Keywords:

  • sea otters;
  • endangered species;
  • Enhydra;
  • microsatellites;
  • MHC

Abstract

The amount and distribution of population genetic variation is crucial information for the design of effective conservation strategies for endangered species and can also be used to provide inference about demographic processes and patterns of migration. Here, we describe variation at a large number of nuclear genes in sea otters Enhydra lutris ssp. We surveyed 14 variable microsatellite loci and two genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) in up to 350 California sea otters Enhydra lutris nereis, which represents ∼10% of the subspecies' population, and 46 otters from two Alaskan sites. We utilized methods for detecting past reductions in effective population size to examine the effects of near extinction from the fur trade. Summary statistic tests largely failed to find a signal of a recent population size reduction (within the past 200 years), but a Bayesian method found a signal of a strong reduction over a longer time scale (up to 500 years ago). These results indicate that the reduction in size began long enough ago that much genetic variation was lost before the 19th century fur trade. A comparison of geographic distance and pairwise relatedness for individual otters found no evidence of kin-based spatial clustering for either gender. This indicates that there is no population structure, due to extended family groups, within the California population. A survey of population genetic variation found that two of the MHC genes, DQB and DRB, had two alleles present and one of the genes, DRA, was monomorphic in otters. This contrasts with other mammals, where they are often the most variable coding genes known. Genetic variation in the sea otter is among the lowest observed for a mammal and raises concerns about the long-term viability of the species, particularly in the face of future environmental changes.