The influence of historical landscape change on genetic variation and population structure of a terrestrial salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
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Forest loss and fragmentation is expected to shape the genetic structure of amphibian populations and reduce genetic variation. Another factor widely understood to have impacted these same parameters in North America is the range expansion that occurred following glacial retreat at the end of the Pleistocene. The Eastern Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) has been subjected to both processes. In this context, we investigated the historical events that are likely to have shaped genetic variation in this species using a panel of six microsatellite markers screened on individuals sampled across ten localities in northeastern Indiana, USA. We found low genetic diversity across forest patches and minimal differentiation. We expected population structure associated with forest fragmentation to result from genetic drift in isolation but instead found that a balance between gene flow and drift was ~50 times more likely. Ratios of allele number and range (M), and coalescent modeling of population demography suggested the occurrence of marked historic decline in effective population size across the region. Taken together, the data point to a loss of genetic variation which preceded deforestation over the past 200 years. This result indicates an important role for ancient demographic processes in shaping current genetic variation that may make it difficult to detect the effect of recent habitat fragmentation.