Combining genetic and demographic monitoring better informs conservation of an endangered urban snake

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Abstract

Conversion and fragmentation of wildlife habitat often leads to smaller and isolated populations and can reduce a species’ ability to disperse across the landscape. As a consequence, genetic drift can quickly lower genetic variation and increase vulnerability to extirpation. For species of conservation concern, quantification of population size and connectivity can clarify the influence of genetic drift in local populations and provides important information for conservation management and recovery strategies. Here, we used genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data and capture-mark-recapture methods to evaluate the genetic diversity and demography within seven focal sites of the endangered San Francisco gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia), a species affected by alteration and isolation of wetland habitats throughout its distribution. The primary goals were to determine the population structure and degree of genetic isolation among T. s. tetrataenia populations and estimate effective size and population abundance within sites to better understand the present and future importance of genetic drift. We also used temporally sampled datasets to examine the magnitude of genetic change over time. We found moderate population genetic structure throughout the San Francisco Peninsula that partitions sites into northern and southern regional clusters. Point estimates of both effective size and population abundance were generally small (≤ 100) for a majority of the sites, and estimates were particularly low in the northern populations. Genetic analyses of temporal datasets indicated an increase in genetic differentiation, especially for the most geographically isolated sites, and decreased genetic diversity over time in at least one site (Pacifica). Our results suggest that drift-mediated processes as a function of small population size and reduced connectivity from neighboring populations may decrease diversity and increase differentiation. Improving genetic diversity and connectivity among T. s. tetrataenia populations could promote persistence of this endangered snake.

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Wood, D. A., Rose, J. P., Halstead, B. J., Stoelting, R. E., Swaim, K. E., & Vandergast, A. G. (2020). Combining genetic and demographic monitoring better informs conservation of an endangered urban snake. PLoS ONE, 15(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231744

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