Increasing isolation of populations by habitat fragmentation threatens the persistence of many species, both from stochastic loss of small isolated populations, and from inbreeding effects in populations that have become genetically isolated. In the southwestern United States, amphibian habitat is naturally patchy in occurrence because of the prevailing aridity of the region. Streams, rivers, and other wetlands are important both as habitat and as corridors that connect populations. However, populations of some species have become more fragmented and isolated by habitat degradation and loss. Northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) have experienced serious declines in the Southwest. We conducted an extensive survey across the known range of northern leopard frogs in Arizona to determine the current distribution and abundance of the species. From a range that once spanned much of the northern and central part of the State, northern leopard frogs have been reduced to three or four widely separated populations, near Lyman Lake in east-central Arizona, in the Stoneman Lake area south of Flagstaff, along Truxton Wash near Peach Springs, and a population of uncertain extent on Navajo Nation lands. The Lyman Lake and Truxton Wash populations are small and extremely isolated. The Stoneman Lake population, however, is an extensive metapopulation spread across several stream drainages, including numerous ponds, wetlands, and artificial tanks. This is the only population in Arizona that is increasing in extent and numbers, but there is concern about the apparent introduction of nonnative genetic stock from eastern North America into this area.
We analyzed genetic diversity within and genetic divergence among populations of northern leopard frogs, across both extant and recently extirpated populations in Arizona. We also analyzed mitochondrial DNA to place these populations into a larger phylogenetic framework and to determine whether any populations contained genetic material not native to the region. We found a high level of genetic divergence among the population centers (Lyman Lake, Stoneman Lake, Truxton Wash), and low genetic diversity in the small populations at Lyman Lake and Truxton. The extensive population in the Stoneman Lake area had high genetic diversity and relatively high gene flow among ponds and tanks across the entire extent of the area. However, this population also contained a mitochondrial haplotype from northern leopard frogs from the northeastern United States or southeastern Canada, probably representing the introduction of released pets or laboratory animals. These eastern frogs were extensively distributed through this population, and probably contributed to its high genetic diversity. Genetic diversity in the outlying populations such as Truxton Wash, East Buckskin Tank, and Hess Tank was low and showed signs of recent bottlenecks. However, supplementing genetic diversity in these native populations with artificial gene flow from the Stoneman Lake area may only be advisable in extreme situations for which there are no other alternatives. Until the nature and effects of genetic mixing of eastern and western genetic stocks of northern leopard frogs are better understood, the long-term persistence of the species in the Southwest may be best served by retaining as much genetic integrity of remaining native populations as possible.