Limited population structure, genetic drift and bottlenecks characterise an endangered bird species in a dynamic, fire-prone ecosystem
journal contributionposted on 2013-01-01, 00:00 authored by Sarah Brown, K Harrisson, Rohan Clarke, Andrew Bennett, P Sunnucks
Fire is a major disturbance process in many ecosystems world-wide, resulting in spatially and temporally dynamic landscapes. For populations occupying such environments, fire-induced landscape change is likely to influence population processes, and genetic patterns and structure among populations. The Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee is an endangered passerine whose global distribution is confined to fire-prone, semi-arid mallee shrublands in south-eastern Australia. This species, with poor capacity for dispersal, has undergone a precipitous reduction in distribution and numbers in recent decades. We used genetic analyses of 11 length-variable, nuclear loci to examine population structure and processes within this species, across its global range. Populations of the Mallee Emu-wren exhibited a low to moderate level of genetic diversity, and evidence of bottlenecks and genetic drift. Bayesian clustering methods revealed weak genetic population structure across the species' range. The direct effects of large fires, together with associated changes in the spatial and temporal patterns of suitable habitat, have the potential to cause population bottlenecks, serial local extinctions and subsequent recolonisation, all of which may interact to erode and homogenise genetic diversity in this species. Movement among temporally and spatially shifting habitat, appears to maintain long-term genetic connectivity. A plausible explanation for the observed genetic patterns is that, following extensive fires, recolonisation exceeds in-situ survival as the primary driver of population recovery in this species. These findings suggest that dynamic, fire-dominated landscapes can drive genetic homogenisation of populations of species with low-mobility and specialised habitat that otherwise would be expected to show strongly structured populations. Such effects must be considered when formulating management actions to conserve species in fire-prone systems.