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Influence of landscape heterogeneity on the functional connectivity of Allegheny woodrats (Neotoma magister) in Virginia

Kanine, Jennifer M., Kierepka, Elizabeth M., Castleberry, Steven B., Mengak, Michael T., Nibbelink, Nathan P., Glenn, Travis C.
Conservation genetics 2018 v.19 no.5 pp. 1259-1268
Neotoma, altitude, gene flow, genotyping, habitats, land cover, landscapes, microsatellite repeats, models, rivers, roads, Virginia
Allegheny woodrats (Neotoma magister) exist as groups of metapopulations due to their dependence on naturally disjunct rocky outcrops in the eastern United States. Severe demographic declines of Allegheny woodrats have occurred in many parts of the range due to a myriad of interacting processes, therefore identifying factors that help maintain the integrity of metapopulations is needed to guide conservation efforts. One factor considered critical to metapopulation persistence is maintaining functional connectivity. Therefore, our objective was to identify landscape factors that influence gene flow in Allegheny woodrats. We sampled 159 individuals from throughout the distribution in Virginia, genotyped them at 22 microsatellite loci, and modeled effects of land cover, roads, large rivers, and elevation on gene flow. The model that parameterized areas ≤ 750 m in elevation as a barrier to gene flow performed best among the tested models, which indicates that functional connectivity is highest in high elevation habitats. We found little evidence for anthropogenic factors influencing gene flow, but continued study across extant metapopulations is needed in more peripheral areas to evaluate if anthropogenic barriers impact functional connectivity. Overall, our study emphasizes the importance of considering elevation for maintaining functional connectivity of Allegheny woodrats in the face of ongoing demographic declines in the eastern United States.