Conservation Genetics

, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 1231–1245 | Cite as

Spatial and temporal variation in genetic diversity of an endangered freshwater seal

  • Mia ValtonenEmail author
  • Jukka U. Palo
  • Minna Ruokonen
  • Mervi Kunnasranta
  • Tommi Nyman
Research Article


Molecular-genetic assessments of demographic history, population structure, and loss of genetic variation in small natural populations are often hampered by a lack of information on initial diversity, isolation time, and migration rates. The landlocked population of currently less than 300 ringed seals inhabiting Lake Saimaa in southeastern Finland offers a unique model for studying these questions in small populations. It has remained completely isolated since the last ice age, information on its initial genetic diversity can be inferred from the large marine source population in the Baltic Sea, and its ecology is well studied. We analyzed the mitochondrial DNA diversity of 215 Saimaa ringed seals spanning three decades in order to assess long- and short-term changes in the gene pool of this critically endangered subspecies. The mtDNA diversity of the Saimaa ringed seal is low, consisting of only eight haplotypes. Nevertheless, coalescent simulations show that the diversity is unexpectedly high when contrasted with the over 800 generations of isolation and the estimated historical carrying capacity of the lake. In the short term, marked temporal and spatial differentiation was observed among three decades and four regions of Lake Saimaa, suggesting extremely low effective subpopulation sizes and limited migration of females within the lake. Our study strongly suggests that enhancing gene flow and population growth is crucial for maintaining the remaining genetic diversity of the Saimaa ringed seal.


Genetic drift MtDNA Small population Spatio-temporal differentiation Coalescent simulation Saimaa ringed seal 



We thank the personnel of the Natural Heritage Services of Metsähallitus, especially T. Sipilä and T. Kokkonen, for collecting a large proportion of the specimens used in this study. We also thank M. Auttila, J. Ketonen, I. Kinnunen, T. Laitinen, I. Marttinen, K. Ratilainen, H. Tarnanen, and J. Taskinen for collecting the placentas. C. Primmer, T. Malm, H. Simola, and M. Niemi are acknowledged for commenting on the manuscript, A. Neuvonen for linguistic revision, and K. Kyyrönen for technical assistance. We also thank M. Viljanen for cooperation. Constructive criticism by associate editor P. Palsbøll and two anonymous reviewers helped to improve the manuscript. This study was financially supported by the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Raija and Ossi Tuuliainen Foundation, the Kuopio Naturalists’ Society, and the Nestori Foundation.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 781 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mia Valtonen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jukka U. Palo
    • 2
  • Minna Ruokonen
    • 3
  • Mervi Kunnasranta
    • 1
    • 4
  • Tommi Nyman
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of Eastern FinlandJoensuuFinland
  2. 2.Hjelt Institute, Department of Forensic MedicineUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of OuluOuluFinland
  4. 4.Finnish Game and Fisheries Research InstituteTurkuFinland
  5. 5.Institute of Systematic BotanyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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