Several recent studies have shown that landscape features can strongly affect spatial patterns of gene flow and genetic variation. Understanding landscape effects on genetic variation is important in conservation for defining management units and understanding movement patterns. The landscape may have little effect on gene flow, however, in highly mobile species such as birds. We tested for genetic breaks associated with landscape features in the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a threatened subspecies associated with old forests in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and extreme southwestern Canada. We found little evidence for distinct genetic breaks in northern spotted owls using a large microsatellite dataset (352 individuals from across the subspecies' range genotyped at 10 loci). Nonetheless, dry low-elevation valleys and the Cascade and Olympic Mountains restrict gene flow, while the Oregon Coast Range facilitates it. The wide Columbia River is not a barrier to gene flow. In addition, inter-individual genetic distance and latitude were negatively related, likely reflecting northward colonization following Pleistocene glacial recession. Our study shows that landscape features may play an important role in shaping patterns of genetic variation in highly vagile taxa such as birds.
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Landscape Features Shape Genetic Structure in Threatened Northern Spotted Owls