Postglacial expansion and not human influence best explains the population structure in the endangered kea (Nestor notabilis)



Inferring past demography is a central question in evolutionary and conservation biology. It is, however, sometimes challenging to infer the processes that shaped the current patterns of genetic variation in endangered species. Population substructuring can occur as a result of survival in several isolated refugia and subsequent recolonization processes or via genetic drift following a population decline. The kea (Nestor notabilis) is an endemic parrot widely distributed in the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand that has gone through a major human-induced population decline during the 1860s–1970s. The aims of this study were to understand the glacial and postglacial history of kea and to determine whether the recent population decline played a role in the shaping of the current genetic variation. We examined the distribution of genetic variation, differentiation and admixture in kea using 17 microsatellites and the mitochondrial control region. Mitochondrial data showed a shallow phylogeny and a genetic distinction between the North and South of the range consistent with the three genetic clusters identified with microsatellite data. Both marker types indicated an increase in genetic isolation by geographic distance. Approximate Bayesian Computation supported a scenario of postglacial divergence from a single ancestral glacial refugium, suggesting that the contemporary genetic structure has resulted from recolonization processes rather than from a recent population decline. The recent evolutionary origin of this genetic structure suggests that each genetic cluster does not need to be considered as independent conservation units.