Aim Limited population structure is predicted for vagile, generalist species, such as the grey wolf (Canis lupus L.). Our aims were to study how genetic variability of grey wolves was distributed in an area comprising different habitats that lay within the potential dispersal range of an individual and to make inferences about the impact of ecology on population structure. Location British Columbia, Canada - which is characterized by a continuum of biogeoclimatic zones across which grey wolves are distributed - and adjacent areas in both Canada and Alaska, United States. Methods We obtained mitochondrial DNA control region sequences from grey wolves from across the province and integrated our genetic results with data on phenotype, behaviour and ecology (distance, habitat and prey composition). We also compared the genetic diversity and differentiation of British Columbia grey wolves with those of other North American wolf populations. Results We found strong genetic differentiation between adjacent populations of grey wolves from coastal and inland British Columbia. We show that the most likely factor explaining this differentiation is habitat discontinuity between the coastal and interior regions of British Columbia, as opposed to geographic distance or physical barriers to dispersal. We hypothesize that dispersing grey wolves select habitats similar to the one in which they were reared, and that this differentiation is maintained largely through behavioural mechanisms. Main conclusions The identification of strong genetic structure on a scale within the dispersing capabilities of an individual suggests that ecological factors are driving wolf differentiation in British Columbia. Coastal wolves are highly distinct and representative of a unique ecosystem, whereas inland British Columbia grey wolves are more similar to adjacent populations of wolves located in Alaska, Alberta and Northwest Territories. Given their unique ecological, morphological, behavioural and genetic characteristics, grey wolves of coastal British Columbia should be considered an Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU) and, consequently, warrant special conservation status. If ecology can drive differentiation in a highly mobile generalist such as the grey wolf, ecology probably drives differentiation in many other species as well.
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