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Keywords:

  • harbor seal;
  • Phoca vitulina vitulina;
  • bottleneck;
  • effective population size;
  • genetic variation;
  • hunting records;
  • Littorina Sea;
  • Mesolithic;
  • Neolithic

Abstract

Detailed knowledge about the history of colonization, population dynamics and behavior greatly enhance evaluation of genetic models of population units and migration rates in spatially structured populations. Here, the genetic uniqueness of harbor seals (Phoca vitulinia) in the eastern Baltic is evaluated in the light of new information on the distribution and abundance of Baltic and eastern North Sea populations during the last 11,000 yr, recent hunting statistics, and population counts. Archaeological records reveal that the Baltic population of harbor seals was founded about 8,000 yr ago. Adjacent populations in the North Sea areas were either small, or went extinct, and became significant only during the last 300 yr. This information generates the hypothesis that the Baltic population has been isolated during the last 8,000 yr, despite the lack of geographical barriers. We show that stochastic effects, isolation, and a documented recent population bottleneck can account for the low observed genetic variation in Baltic harbor seals.