Forest corridors maintain historical gene flow in a tiger metapopulation in the highlands of central India

Sandeep Sharma, Trishna Dutta, Jesús E. Maldonado, Thomas C. Wood, Hemendra Singh Panwar, John Seidensticker

Abstract

Understanding the patterns of gene flow of an endangered species metapopulation occupying a fragmented habitat is crucial for landscape-level conservation planning and devising effective conservation strategies. Tigers (Panthera tigris) are globally endangered and their populations are highly fragmented and exist in a few isolated metapopulations across their range. We used multi-locus genotypic data from 273 individual tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) from four tiger populations of the Satpura–Maikal landscape of central India to determine whether the corridors in this landscape are functional. This 45 000 km2 landscape contains 17% of India's tiger population and 12% of its tiger habitat. We applied Bayesian and coalescent-based analyses to estimate contemporary and historical gene flow among these populations and to infer their evolutionary history. We found that the tiger metapopulation in central India has high rates of historical and contemporary gene flow. The tests for population history reveal that tigers populated central India about 10 000 years ago. Their population subdivision began about 1000 years ago and accelerated about 200 years ago owing to habitat fragmentation, leading to four spatially separated populations. These four populations have been in migration–drift equilibrium maintained by high gene flow. We found the highest rates of contemporary gene flow in populations that are connected by forest corridors. This information is highly relevant to conservation practitioners and policy makers, because deforestation, road widening and mining are imminent threats to these corridors.

  • Received June 10, 2013.
  • Accepted July 3, 2013.
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