Genetic signatures of population change in the British golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) was once widely distributed in the uplands of the British Isles, but is now extinct in Ireland, and largely confined to the highlands and islands of Scotland. As the precise extent and severity of the reduction in population size are unclear, it is important to understand how the population was affected by the decline. We therefore genotyped 13 polymorphic microsatellite loci in 172 individuals from the contemporary British population and compared their genetic diversity to 70 British and 9 Irish museum specimens. Despite the recent population decline, there is only slight evidence for a concomitant loss of genetic variation. Instead, two likelihood-based Bayesian methods provided evidence for a severe ancient genetic bottleneck, possibly caused by the fragmentation of a large mainland European population and/or the founding effects of colonising the British Isles. As the population persisted despite this ancient bottleneck, our conclusion is that there is limited need for intervention to augment the present-day genetic diversity. The main short-term objective of conservation measures should be to increase population sizes by continuous safeguarding of individuals and habitat management. Finally, we also confirmed that, for management purposes, the species should be considered a single population unit and that the extinct Irish population was not differentiated from the British one.