Previous studies of migratory sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) have made significant progress explaining evolution of this group at the species scale, but have been unsuccessful in explaining the geographically partitioned variation in morphology seen on the population scale. The objectives of this study were to assess the population structure and gene flow patterns among migratory sandhill cranes using microsatellite DNA genotypes and mitochondrial DNA haplotypes of a large sample of individuals across three populations. In particular, we were interested in evaluating the roles of Pleistocene glaciation events and postglaciation gene flow in shaping the present-day population structure. Our results indicate substantial gene flow across regions of the Midcontinental population that are geographically adjacent, suggesting that gene flow for most of the region follows an isolation-by-distance model. Male mediated gene flow and strong female philopatry may explain the differing patterns of nuclear and mitochondrial variation. Taken in context with precise geographical information on breeding locations gained from satellite telemetry, the morphologic and microsatellite DNA variation shows a gradation from the Arctic-nesting subspecies G.c. canadensis to non Arctic subspecies G. c. tabida. Analogous to other Arctic-nesting birds, it is probable that the population structure seen in the Midcontinental sandhill cranes reflects the result of post-glacial secondary contact. Our data suggest that subspecies of migratory sandhills experience significant gene flow and therefore do not represent distinct and independent genetic entities.
Additional publication details
Population genetic structure in migratory sandhill cranes and the role of Pleistocene glaciations