The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a migratory shorebird currently listed as Endangered in Canada and the U.S. Great Lakes, and threatened throughout the remainder of its U.S. breeding and winter range. In this study, we undertook the first comprehensive molecular genetic-based investigation of Piping Plovers. Our primary goals were to (1) address higher level subspecific taxonomic issues, (2) characterize population genetic structure, and (3) make inferences regarding past bottlenecks or population expansions that have occurred within this species. Our analyses included samples of individuals from 23 U.S. States and Canadian Provinces, and were based on mitochondrial DNA sequences (580 bp, n = 245 individuals) and eight nuclear microsatellite loci (n = 229 individuals). Our findings illustrate strong support for separate Atlantic and Interior Piping Plover subspecies (C. m. melodus and C. m. circumcinctus, respectively). Birds from the Great Lakes region were allied with the Interior subspecies group and should be taxonomically referred to as C. m. circumcinctus. Population genetic analyses suggested that genetic structure was stronger among Atlantic birds relative to the Interior group. This pattern indicates that natal and breeding site fidelity may be reduced among Interior birds. Furthermore, analyses suggested that Interior birds have previously experienced genetic bottlenecks, whereas no evidence for such patterns existed among the Atlantic subspecies. Likewise, genetic analyses indicated that the Great Lakes region has experienced a population expansion. This finding may be interpreted as population growth following a previous bottleneck event. No genetic evidence for population expansions was found for Atlantic, Prairie Canada, or U.S. Northern Great Plains individuals. We interpret our population history insights in light of 25 years of Piping Plover census data. Overall, differences observed between Interior and Atlantic birds may reflect differences in spatiotemporal stability of Piping Plover nesting habitat between regions.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Molecular Population Genetic Structure in the Piping Plover