Inferring colonization history and dispersal patterns of a long-lived seabird by combining genetic and empirical data


  • Editor: Jean-Nicolas Volff

Lindsay C. Young, Pacific Rim Conservation, 3038 Oahu Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA. Tel: +1 808.741.9479; Fax: +1 808.377.7114


Identifying biological trends and threats to organisms that make long distance migrations are often the limiting factors in their conservation. Indeed, Laysan albatross Phoebastria immutabilis are highly vagile seabirds, foraging throughout the North Pacific Ocean. Despite mark–recapture data indicating natal philopatry, Laysan albatross recently re-colonized several anthropogenically extirpated breeding locations. At the same time, a breeding population in the north-western Hawaiian Islands was lost to erosion and it was hypothesized that the colonization events were due to displacement rather than dispersal. Nuclear and mitochondrial markers were used in a range wide survey to test whether natal philopatry corresponded to population structure in Laysan albatross, and to determine whether recent colonization events were a result of displacement from vanishing breeding habitat. Five microsatellite loci found little population structure (FST=0.01, P=0.001), and sequences from the mitochondrial control region revealed low population structure (πST=0.05, P<0.001). The results were consistent with male-mediated dispersal and strong, but not absolute, philopatry by females. Mixed stock analyses and banding records from the newly colonized sites indicated contributions from multiple source populations, which contradicted the displacement hypothesis of a single source population and instead supported species-wide dispersal from all source colonies. High genetic diversity (π=0.045, h=0.989), rapid colonization, and great dispersal potential bode well for the conservation of Laysan albatross. However, it may be necessary to protect high-island nesting sites, preserve genetic diversity and maintain breeding populations in the face of projected sea level rises and persistent bycatch.