Conservation Genetics

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 911–924 | Cite as

An interstate highway affects gene flow in a top reptilian predator (Crotalus atrox) of the Sonoran Desert

  • Hans-Werner Herrmann
  • Krystyn M. Pozarowski
  • Alexander Ochoa
  • Gordon W. Schuett
Research Article


Roads can substantially impact the population connectivity of a wide range of terrestrial vertebrates, often resulting in loss of genetic diversity and an increase of spatial genetic structure. We studied the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), a large and abundant venomous predator, to test the hypothesis that a large and relatively new roadway in Arizona (Interstate Highway I-10) is a barrier that impacts gene flow and population genetics via habitat fragmentation. Based on 72 C. atrox sampled from three specific sampling sites (“subpopulations”) on both the west and east corridors of I-10, we used 30 nuclear microsatellite DNA loci and three mitochondrial DNA genes (2615 bp) to assess genetic diversity and structure, estimate effective population size (N e ), and describe patterns of gene flow. We found no evidence for loss of genetic diversity or a decrease in N e between the three subpopulations. Our microsatellite analysis showed that two subpopulations in close proximity (4 km), but separated by I-10, showed greater levels of genetic differentiation than two subpopulations that were separated by a greater distance (7 km) and not by I-10 or any other obvious barriers. Mitochondrial DNA analyses showed no significant genetic differentiation nor any indication of historically impeded gene flow. Tajima’s D and mismatch distribution tests revealed that demographic expansion is occurring in the overall population (all three subpopulations). Bayesian clustering and spatial genetic autocorrelation analyses of microsatellite data showed resistance to gene flow at the approximate location of I-10. Simulations that investigated gene flow between the subpopulations (with and without a highway barrier present) were consistent with our molecular results. We conclude that I-10 has reduced gene flow in a population of an important reptilian predator of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and make conservation recommendations for reversing this trend.


Linear barrier Road Gene flow Genetic diversity Dispersal Snakes 



We thank numerous supporters, especially Roger Repp, for assistance in the field. Matt Kaplan, Taylor Edwards, and Ryan Sprissler (University of Arizona Genetics Core, Arizona Research Laboratories) assisted with genotyping and DNA sequencing. Anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments and improved the manuscript. Mickey Reed (Advanced Resource Technology Group, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona) helped with the production of the map. The Tucson Herpetological Society supported this study with two research funds. Adrian Mungia-Vega offered advice regarding analyses. Tissue samples were obtained under the Arizona Game and Fish Department scientific collecting permit SP682608. The research protocol was approved by University of Arizona IACUC (08-122).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural Resources and the EnvironmentUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Molecular and Cellular BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Biology and Neuroscience InstituteGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Chiricahua Desert MuseumRodeoUSA

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