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Effects of habitat deterioration on the population genetics and conservation of the jaguar

Roques, S., Sollman, R., Jácomo, A., Tôrres, N., Silveira, L., Chávez, C., Keller, C., do Prado, D. Mello, Torres, P. Carignano, dos Santos, C. Jorge, da Luz, X. Bernardes Garcia, Magnusson, W. E., Godoy, J. A., Ceballos, G, Palomares, F.
Conservation genetics 2016 v.17 no.1 pp. 125-139
Panthera onca, adverse effects, biogeography, cerrado, conservation areas, ecological restoration, ecosystems, forests, genetic variation, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, habitats, humans, landscapes, microsatellite repeats, population density, population genetics, population structure, surveys, Amazonia, Brazil, Mexico, Pantanal
Over the past century, human activities and their side effects have significantly threatened both ecosystems and resident species. Nevertheless, the genetic patterns of large felids that depend heavily on large and well-conserved continuous habitat remain poorly studied. Using the largest-ever contemporary genetic survey of wild jaguars (Panthera onca), we evaluated their genetic diversity and population structure in natural (Brazilian Amazon) and highly modified habitats (e.g. Cerrado, Caatinga) including those close to the northern (Yucatan, Mexico) and southern (Pantanal) edge of the species’ distribution range. Data from our set of microsatellites revealed a pronounced genetic structure, with four genetically differentiated geographic areas. Geographic distance was not the only factor influencing genetic differentiation through the jaguar range. Instead, we found evidence of the effects of habitat deterioration on genetic patterns: while the levels of genetic diversity in the Amazon forest, the largest continuum habitat for the species, are high and consistent with panmixia across large distances, genetic diversity near the edge of the species distribution has been reduced through population contractions. Mexican jaguar populations were highly differentiated from those in Brazil and genetically depauperated. An isolated population from the Caatinga showed the genetic effects of a recent demographic decline (within the last 20–30 years), which may reflect recent habitat degradation in the region. Our results demonstrate that the jaguar is highly sensitive to habitat fragmentation especially in human-dominated landscapes, and that in Brazil, the existing but limited genetic connectivity in the central protected areas should be maintained. These conclusions have important implications for the management of wide-ranging species with high dispersal and low population density. The restoration of ecological connectivity between populations over relatively large scales should be one of the main priorities for species conservation.