Identifying patterns of fine-scale genetic structure in natural populations can advance understanding of critical ecological processes such as dispersal and gene flow across heterogeneous landscapes. Alpine ungulates generally exhibit high levels of genetic structure due to female philopatry and patchy configuration of mountain habitats. We assessed the spatial scale of genetic structure and the amount of gene flow in 301 Dall’s sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) at the landscape level using 15 nuclear microsatellites and 473 base pairs of the mitochondrial (mtDNA) control region. Dall’s sheep exhibited significant genetic structure within contiguous mountain ranges, but mtDNA structure occurred at a broader geographic scale than nuclear DNA within the study area, and mtDNA structure for other North American mountain sheep populations. No evidence of male-mediated gene flow or greater philopatry of females was observed; there was little difference between markers with different modes of inheritance (pairwise nuclear DNA F ST = 0.004–0.325; mtDNA F ST = 0.009–0.544), and males were no more likely than females to be recent immigrants. Historical patterns based on mtDNA indicate separate northern and southern lineages and a pattern of expansion following regional glacial retreat. Boundaries of genetic clusters aligned geographically with prominent mountain ranges, icefields, and major river valleys based on Bayesian and hierarchical modeling of microsatellite and mtDNA data. Our results suggest that fine-scale genetic structure in Dall’s sheep is influenced by limited dispersal, and structure may be weaker in populations occurring near ancestral levels of density and distribution in continuous habitats compared to other alpine ungulates that have experienced declines and marked habitat fragmentation.
Additional publication details
Lack of sex-biased dispersal promotes fine-scale genetic structure in alpine ungulates