Research Article

Conservation Genetics

, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 1213-1230

First online:

Pronounced genetic structure and low genetic diversity in European red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) populations

  • Marius A. WenzelAffiliated withInstitute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen
  • , Lucy M. I. WebsterAffiliated withInstitute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen
  • , Guillermo BlancoAffiliated withDepartment of Evolutionary Ecology, National Museum of Natural History (MNCN-CSIC)
  • , Malcolm D. BurgessAffiliated withCentre for Research in Animal Behaviour, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
  • , Christian KerbiriouAffiliated withMusuém National d’Histoire Naturelle CERSP UMR 7204 MNHN-CNRS-UPMC
  • , Gernot SegelbacherAffiliated withDepartment of Wildlife Ecology and Management, University of Freiburg
  • , Stuart B. PiertneyAffiliated withInstitute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen
  • , Jane M. ReidAffiliated withInstitute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen Email author 

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The red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) is of conservation concern in the British Isles and continental Europe, with historically declining populations and a highly fragmented distribution. We quantified the distribution of genetic variation within and among European populations to identify isolated populations that may need to be managed as demographically independent units, and assess whether individual populations are denuded of genetic diversity and so may show reduced viability. We genotyped 326 choughs from ten wild populations and 22 from one captive population at 16 nuclear microsatellite loci, and sequenced 34 individuals across three mitochondrial regions to quantify genetic structure, diversity and phylogeography. Microsatellite diversity was low (often <4 alleles per locus), but pairwise population differentiation was high (often D est  > 0.1), with a signature of isolation-by-distance. Bayesian-inferred a posteriori genetic clusters coincided with a priori populations, supporting strong genetic structure. Microsatellites also allowed us to identify the probable origin of the captive choughs and one recently founded wild population. Mitochondrial DNA sequence diversity was low (π = 0.00103). Phylogeographic structure was consequently poorly resolved, but indicated that sampled continental-European populations are ancestral to British Isles populations, which comprised a single clade. Our data suggest that British Isles chough populations are relatively isolated with infrequent gene flow and relatively genetically depauperate, potentially requiring genetic management. These findings should be integrated into conservation management policy to ensure long-term viability of chough populations.


Connectivity Genetic structure Genetic diversity Microsatellite Mitochondrial DNA Recolonisation Red-billed chough