The Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracencis) is among the most enigmatic and least studied North American birds. Nesting exclusively in marshes and wetlands, it breeds largely east of the Rocky Mountains in the northern United States and Canada, but there is an isolated population in southern Oregon once believed extirpated. The degree of connectivity of the Oregon population with the main population is unknown. We used mitochondrial DNA sequences (mtDNA) and six microsatellite loci to characterize the Yellow Rail's genetic structure and diversity patterns in six areas. Our mtDNA-based analyses of genetic structure identified significant population differentiation, but pairwise comparison of regions identified no clear geographic trends. In contrast, microsatellites suggested subtle genetic structure differentiating the Oregon population from those in the five regions sampled in the Yellow Rail's main breeding range. The genetic diversity of the Oregon population was also the lowest of the six regions sampled, and Oregon was one of three regions that demonstrated evidence of recent population bottlenecks. Factors that produced population reductions may include loss of wetlands to development and agricultural conversion, drought, and wildfire. At this time, we are unable to determine if the high percentage (50%) of populations having experienced bottlenecks is representative of the Yellow Rail's entire range. Further genetic data from additional breeding populations will be required for this issue to be addressed.
Additional publication details
Evidence for population bottlenecks and subtle genetic structure in the yellow rail