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Dynamic landscapes in northwestern North America structured populations of wolverines (Gulo gulo)

May 12, 2021

Cyclic climatic and glacial fluctuations of the Late Quaternary produced a dynamic biogeographic history for high latitudes. To refine our understanding of this history in northwestern North America, we explored geographic structure in a wide-ranging carnivore, the wolverine (Gulo gulo). We examined genetic variation in populations across mainland Alaska, coastal Southeast Alaska, and mainland western Canada using nuclear microsatellite genotypes and sequence data from the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and Cytochrome b (Cytb) gene. Data from maternally inherited mtDNA reflect stable populations in Northwest Alaska, suggesting the region harbored wolverine populations since at least the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; 21 Kya), consistent with their persistence in the fossil record of Beringia. Populations in Southeast Alaska are characterized by minimal divergence, with no genetic signature of long-term refugial persistence (consistent with the lack of pre-Holocene fossil records there). The Kenai Peninsula population exhibits mixed signatures depending on marker type: mtDNA data indicate stability (i.e., historical persistence) and include a private haplotype, whereas biparentally inherited microsatellites exhibit relatively low variation and a lack of private alleles consistent with a more recent Holocene colonization of the peninsula. Our genetic work is largely consistent with the early 20th century taxonomic hypothesis that wolverines on the Kenai Peninsula belong to a distinct subspecies. Our finding of significant genetic differentiation of wolverines inhabiting the Kenai Peninsula, coupled with the peninsula’s burgeoning human population and the wolverine’s known sensitivity to anthropogenic impacts, provides valuable foundational data that can be used to inform conservation and management prescriptions for wolverines inhabiting these landscapes.

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