Highways are one of the leading causes of wildlife habitat fragmentation and may particularly affect wide-ranging species, such as American black bears (Ursus americanus). We initiated a research project in 2000 to determine potential effects of a 4-lane highway on black bear ecology in Washington County, North Carolina. The research design included a treatment area (highway construction) and a control area and a pre- and post-construction phase. We used data from the pre-construction phase to determine whether we could detect scale dependency or directionality among allele occurrence patterns using geostatistics. Detection of such patterns could provide a powerful tool to measure the effects of landscape fragmentation on gene flow. We sampled DNA from roots of black bear hair at 70 hair-sampling sites on each study area for 7 weeks during fall of 2000. We used microsatellite analysis based on 10 loci to determine unique multi-locus genotypes. We examined all alleles sampled at ???25 sites on each study area and mapped their presence or absence at each hair-sample site. We calculated semivariograms, which measure the strength of statistical correlation as a function of distance, and adjusted them for anisotropy to determine the maximum direction of spatial continuity. We then calculated the mean direction of spatial continuity for all examined alleles. The mean direction of allele frequency variation was 118.3?? (SE = 8.5) on the treatment area and 172.3?? (SE = 6.0) on the control area. Rayleigh's tests showed that these directions differed from random distributions (P = 0.028 and P < 0.001, respectively), indicating consistent directional patterns for the alleles we examined in each area. Despite the small spatial scale of our study (approximately 11,000 ha for each study area), we observed distinct and consistent patterns of allele occurrence, suggesting different directions of gene flow between the study areas. These directions seemed to coincide with the primary orientation of the best habitat areas. Furthermore, the patterns we observed suggest directions of potential source populations beyond the 2 study areas. Indeed, nearby areas classified as core black bear habitat exist in the directions indicated by our analysis. Geostatistical analysis of allele occurrence patterns may provide a useful technique to identify potential barriers to gene flow among bear populations.
Additional publication details
Geostatistical analysis of allele presence patterns among American black bears in eastern North Carolina