Temporal shifts in the saltmarsh–Nelson’s sparrow hybrid zone revealed by replicated demographic and genetic surveys
Conservation of threatened or endangered species in a hybrid zone requires a comprehensive understanding of interspecific dynamics over time and space. We evaluated changes in location and composition of a hybrid zone over a 15-year period (with replicated sampling in 1997–2000 and 2011–2013) for saltmarsh (Ammodramus caudacutus) and Nelson’s (A. nelsoni) sparrows, two tidal marsh specialists of high conservation priority in the northeastern United States. We combined genetic analyses using microsatellite and mitochondrial markers with species distribution patterns. In both time periods, replicate genetic sampling (n = 85; five sites) and field population surveys (93 sites) were conducted. We compared the distribution of parental species and hybrids and estimates for hybrid zone width and center between the two time periods. An increase in the relative proportion of Nelson’s sparrows in sympatric marshes and an approximate doubling of hybrid zone width provides evidence for expansion. Introgression rates increased over time for neutral loci but declined for a mitochondrial gene and two gene-associated loci under the influence of selection, as expected under a speciation model with barriers to gene flow. On average, the center of the hybrid zone shifted 60 km southward over the 15 years. We placed our findings within a policy framework to evaluate management options for hybrids. We conclude that despite increasing rates of introgression, hybridization poses a substantially lesser threat to parental populations than the imminent consequences of sea-level rise and habitat degradation. Based on our current knowledge of hybrid zone dynamics in this system, we conclude that the conservation of hybrids is warranted along with parental species at this time.