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Unique and isolated: population structure has implications for management of the endangered New Zealand sea lion
- Collins, Catherine J., Chilvers, B. Louise, Osborne, Amy, Taylor, Matt, Robertson, Bruce C.
- Conservation genetics 2017 v.18 no.5 pp. 1177-1189
- Phocarctos hookeri, breeding, breeding sites, bycatch, endangered species, females, gene flow, genetic markers, genetic variation, islands, loci, males, microsatellite repeats, mitochondria, mitochondrial DNA, philopatry, population size, population structure, New Zealand
- Female otariids (eared seals) frequently display strong levels of philopatry, a behaviour that has the potential to influence population structure, particularly at the mitochondrial level. Conversely, male otariids often move between breeding colonies, likely facilitating nuclear gene flow between colonies. Such gender-specific movements have the potential to influence species population structure. Here we investigate the genetic population structure of the endangered New Zealand (NZ) sea lion, using nuclear (microsatellite) and mitochondrial molecular markers, with the intention to better inform conservation through identification of management units for the species. The strong levels of female philopatry in this species have potential to lead to population structure at the mitochondrial loci. In contrast, weak or no population structure is expected across nuclear loci. NZ sea lions were sampled from the main breeding areas across the species’ current distribution (three Auckland Islands sites, two Campbell Island sites, one Stewart Island site and one Otago Peninsula site). Individuals were screened for microsatellite (n = 271; 16 loci) and mitochondrial (n = 56; 1027 bp D-loop and 1189 bp cytb). Despite a small (c. 9880 individuals) population size, moderate levels of microsatellite variation are observed in the NZ sea lions, in contrast to low levels of mitochondrial genetic variation. Results from mitochondrial DNA analyses revealed no population structure, suggesting that the strong level of female philopatry in NZ sea lions alone is not sufficient to maintain genetic population structure. Due to the frequent male movements between breeding colonies, no population structure was detected across the nuclear loci either. The absence of genetic structure suggests that, from a genetic perspective, NZ sea lions can be considered to be a single population. Despite this, the differing impacts of threats (e.g. fisheries by-catch) to each individual breeding colony must also be taken into consideration when defining management units for this endangered species.