Restricted gene flow and fine-scale population structuring in tool using New Caledonian crows
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- Rutz, C., Ryder, T.B. & Fleischer, R.C. Naturwissenschaften (2012) 99: 313. doi:10.1007/s00114-012-0904-6
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New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides are the most prolific avian tool users. It has been suggested that some aspects of their complex tool use behaviour are under the influence of cultural processes, involving the social transmission—and perhaps even progressive refinement—of tool designs. Using microsatellite and mt-haplotype profiling of crows from three distinct habitats (dry forest, farmland and beachside habitat), we show that New Caledonian crow populations can exhibit significant fine-scale genetic structuring. Our finding that some sites of <10 km apart were highly differentiated demonstrates considerable potential for genetic and/or cultural isolation of crow groups. Restricted movement of birds between local populations at such small spatial scales, especially across habitat boundaries, illustrates how specific tool designs could be preserved over time, and how tool technologies of different crow groups could diverge due to drift and local selection pressures. Young New Caledonian crows have an unusually long juvenile dependency period, during which they acquire complex tool-related foraging skills. We suggest that the resulting delayed natal dispersal drives population-divergence patterns in this species. Our work provides essential context for future studies that examine the genetic makeup of crow populations across larger geographic areas, including localities with suspected cultural differences in crow tool technologies.