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      Gene flow and population structure of a solitary top carnivore in a human-dominated landscape


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          While African leopard populations are considered to be continuous as demonstrated by their high genetic variation, the southernmost leopard population exists in the Eastern and Western Cape, South Africa, where anthropogenic activities may be affecting this population's structure. Little is known about the elusive, last free-roaming top predator in the region and this study is the first to report on leopard population structuring using nuclear DNA. By analyzing 14 microsatellite markers from 40 leopard tissue samples, we aimed to understand the populations' structure, genetic distance, and gene flow ( Nm). Our results, based on spatially explicit analysis with Bayesian methods, indicate that leopards in the region exist in a fragmented population structure with lower than expected genetic diversity. Three population groups were identified, between which low to moderate levels of gene flow were observed ( Nm 0.5 to 3.6). One subpopulation exhibited low genetic differentiation, suggesting a continuous population structure, while the remaining two appear to be less connected, with low emigration and immigration between these populations. Therefore, genetic barriers are present between the subpopulations, and while leopards in the study region may function as a metapopulation, anthropogenic activities threaten to decrease habitat and movement further. Our results indicate that the leopard population may become isolated within a few generations and suggest that management actions should aim to increase habitat connectivity and reduce human–carnivore conflict. Understanding genetic diversity and connectivity of populations has important conservation implications that can highlight management of priority populations to reverse the effects of human-caused extinctions.

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          Most cited references 56

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          Estimation of average heterozygosity and genetic distance from a small number of individuals.

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          The magnitudes of the systematic biases involved in sample heterozygosity and sample genetic distances are evaluated, and formulae for obtaining unbiased estimates of average heterozygosity and genetic distance are developed. It is also shown that the number of individuals to be used for estimating average heterozygosity can be very small if a large number of loci are studied and the average heterozygosity is low. The number of individuals to be used for estimating genetic distance can also be very small if the genetic distance is large and the average heterozygosity of the two species compared is low.
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            Gene flow and the geographic structure of natural populations.

             M Slatkin (1987)
            There is abundant geographic variation in both morphology and gene frequency in most species. The extent of geographic variation results from a balance of forces tending to produce local genetic differentiation and forces tending to produce genetic homogeneity. Mutation, genetic drift due to finite population size, and natural selection favoring adaptations to local environmental conditions will all lead to the genetic differentiation of local populations, and the movement of gametes, individuals, and even entire populations--collectively called gene flow--will oppose that differentiation. Gene flow may either constrain evolution by preventing adaptation to local conditions or promote evolution by spreading new genes and combinations of genes throughout a species' range. Several methods are available for estimating the amount of gene flow. Direct methods monitor ongoing gene flow, and indirect methods use spatial distributions of gene frequencies to infer past gene flow. Applications of these methods show that species differ widely in the gene flow that they experience. Of particular interest are those species for which direct methods indicate little current gene flow but indirect methods indicate much higher levels of gene flow in the recent past. Such species probably have undergone large-scale demographic changes relatively frequently.
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              Preservation of avian blood and tissue samples for DNA analyses


                Author and article information

                Ecol Evol
                Ecol Evol
                Ecology and Evolution
                BlackWell Publishing Ltd (Oxford, UK )
                January 2015
                24 December 2014
                : 5
                : 2
                : 335-344
                [1 ]School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences University of the Witwatersrand Private Bag X3, Johannesburg, 2050, South Africa
                [2 ]Landmark Foundation P.O. Box 22, Riversdale, 6670, South Africa
                [3 ]National Zoological Gardens of South Africa P.O. Box 754, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa
                [4 ]Genetics Department, University of the Free State P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein, 9300, South Africa
                [5 ]WildCRU, Oxford University Abingdon Road, Tubney, Abingdon, OX13 5QL, UK
                [6 ]Centre for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria Private Bag X20 Hatfield, Pretoria 0028, South Africa
                Author notes
                Correspondence School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand Private Bag X3, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa., Tel: +27(0)84 592 4099; Fax: +27(0)86 610 1268; E-mail: jeannine_mcmanus@ 123456hotmail.com

                Funding Information Jeannine McManus was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to the Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. We also sincerely thank the ABAX Foundation, Henry and Iris Englund Foundation, National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund, Mones Michaels Trust, Arne Hanson, and Deutsche Bank South Africa Foundation for assisting in sponsoring the research.

                © 2014 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

                This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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