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Spatial genetic structure of bristle-thighed curlews (Numenius tahitiensis): breeding area differentiation not reflected on the non-breeding grounds

Abstract

Migratory birds occupy geographically and ecologically disparate areas during their annual cycle with conditions on breeding and non-breeding grounds playing separate and important roles in population dynamics. We used data from nuclear microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA control region loci to assess the breeding and non-breeding spatial genetic structure of a transoceanic migrant shorebird, the bristle-thighed curlew. We found spatial variance in the distribution of allelic and haplotypic frequencies between the curlew’s two breeding areas in Alaska but did not observe this spatial structure throughout its non-breeding range on low-lying tropical and subtropical islands in the Central Pacific (Oceania). This suggests that the two breeding populations do not spatially segregate during the non-breeding season. Lack of migratory connectivity is likely attributable to the species’ behavior, as bristle-thighed curlews exhibit differential timing of migration and some individuals move among islands during non-breeding months. Given the detrimental impact of many past and current human activities on island ecosystems, admixture of breeding populations in Oceania may render the bristle-thighed curlew less vulnerable to perturbations there, as neither breeding population will be disproportionally affected by local habitat losses or by stochastic events. Furthermore, lack of migratory connectivity may enable bristle-thighed curlews to respond to changing island ecosystems by altering their non-breeding distribution. However, availability of suitable non-breeding habitat for curlews in Oceania is increasingly limited on both low-lying and high islands by habitat loss, sea level rise, and invasive mammalian predators that pose a threat to flightless and flight-compromised curlews during the molting period.

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center and Laboratories of Analytical Biology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Technological support was provided the University of Alaska Life Science Informatics computer cluster (NIH P20RR016466). Richard Lanctot, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helped design the study and Sue Thomas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, procured initial funding. We thank the James Dean, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, for subsampling specimens. George Sage and Judy Gust, U.S. Geological Survey, provided laboratory assistance. David Douglas, U.S. Geological Survey, provided advice on the spatial analysis. Comments by Robert Wilson, University of Alaska Fairbanks, John Pearce, U.S. Geological Survey, and three anonymous reviewers, improved the manuscript. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Sarah A. Sonsthagen.

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Sonsthagen, S.A., Tibbitts, T.L., Gill, R.E. et al. Spatial genetic structure of bristle-thighed curlews (Numenius tahitiensis): breeding area differentiation not reflected on the non-breeding grounds. Conserv Genet 16, 223–233 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-014-0654-4

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Keywords

  • Alaska
  • Bristle-thighed curlew
  • Migratory connectivity
  • Numenius
  • Oceania
  • Population genetic structure