Potential barriers to gene flow in the endangered European wildcat (Felis silvestris)
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- Hartmann, S.A., Steyer, K., Kraus, R.H.S. et al. Conserv Genet (2013) 14: 413. doi:10.1007/s10592-013-0468-9
The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) is a focal species for conservation in many European countries. After a severe population decline during the 19th century, many populations became extinct or isolated. Within Germany, suitable wildcat habitat is assumed to be highly fragmented. We thus investigated fine-scale genetic structure of wildcat populations in Central Germany across two major potential barriers, the Rhine River with its valley and a major highway. We analyzed 260 hair and tissue samples collected between 2006 and 2011 in the Taunus and Hunsrück mountain ranges (3,500 km2 study area). We identified 188 individuals by genotyping 14 microsatellite loci, and found significant genetic substructure in the study area. Both the Rhine River and the highway were identified as significant barrier to gene flow. While the long-term effect of the river has led to stronger genetic differentiation in the river compared to the highway, estimates of current gene flow and relatedness across barriers indicated a similar or even stronger barrier effect to ongoing wildcat dispersal of the highway. Despite these barrier effects, we found evidence for the presence of recent migration across both the river and the highway. Our study thus suggests that although wildcats have the capability of dispersal across major anthropogenic and natural landscape barriers, these structures still lead to an effective isolation of populations as reflected by genetic analysis. The results strengthen the need for currently ongoing national strategies of wildcat conservation aiming for large scale habitat connectivity.