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Keywords:

  • dispersal;
  • endangered species;
  • fragmentation;
  • metapopulation;
  • Rangifer tarandus caribou;
  • woodland caribou

Abstract

Populations that are fragmented in space may persist because of metapopulation function that relies on dispersal among subpopulations. Assuming that a fragmented distribution means that the species operates as a metapopulation can lead to erroneous conclusions about population structure, unless the dispersal traits of the organism are understood. A wide-ranging large mammal with an increasingly fragmented distribution is the mountain caribou, found in the interior rain forests of British Columbia, Canada. These caribou are an endangered ecotype of woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou, and, based on movements of adult caribou, their population has been divided into 18 subpopulations. Their numbers have declined over at least the last 25 years, and it is unknown if their fragmented distribution operates as a metapopulation linked by juvenile dispersal or is simply a step towards extinction. From a database of radio-locations collected over a 23-year period (1984–2007) from 358 caribou, we used a spatial index to define summer/fall composite ranges (breeding ranges) across their distribution. The 18 previously recognized subpopulations were fragmented further into 41 summer/fall composite ranges. Young animals (<1 year of age) were not observed to disperse among subpopulations (0/26 opportunities) or even among summer/fall composite ranges (0/7). Similar results were found for animals 2 and 3 years of age. Breeding dispersal by adult caribou occurred in 1.4% of the observed opportunities (8/587). These dispersal rates are insufficient to rescue the smaller and declining subpopulations. We conclude that the distribution of these mountain caribou is more fragmented than thought previously and is not functioning as a classic metapopulation due to a lack of dispersal; rather, it is better described as an extreme non-equilibrium metapopulation. Mountain caribou and other wide-ranging species fragmented into subpopulations by human actions may appear to be in a metapopulation but unless they have the innate ability to disperse among subpopulations, the distribution is more likely the geographic pattern of the extinction process.