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Genetic reconstruction of a bullfrog invasion to elucidate vectors of introduction and secondary spread

June 28, 2016

Reconstructing historical colonization pathways of an invasive species is critical for uncovering factors that determine invasion success and for designing management strategies. The American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) is endemic to eastern North America, but now has a global distribution and is considered to be one of the worst invaders in the world. In Montana, several introduced populations have been reported, but little is known of their sources and vectors of introduction and secondary spread. We evaluated the genetic composition of introduced populations at local (Yellowstone River floodplain) and regional (Montana and Wyoming) scales in contrast to native range populations. Our objectives were to (1) estimate the number of introductions, (2) identify probable native sources, (3) evaluate genetic variation relative to sources, and (4) characterize properties of local- and regional-scale spread. We sequenced 937 bp of the mitochondrial cytochrome b locus in 395 tadpoles collected along 100 km of the Yellowstone River, from three additional sites in MT and a proximate site in WY. Pairwise ΦST revealed high divergence among nonnative populations, suggesting at least four independent introductions into MT from diverse sources. Three cyt b haplotypes were identical to native haplotypes distributed across the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, and AMOVA confirmed the western native region as a likely source. While haplotype (Hd = 0.69) and nucleotide diversity (π = 0.005) were low in introduced bullfrogs, the levels of diversity did not differ significantly from source populations. In the Yellowstone, two identified haplotypes implied few introduction vectors and a significant relationship between genetic and river distance was found. Evidence for multiple invasions and lack of subsequent regional spread emphasizes the importance of enforcing legislation prohibiting bullfrog importation and the need for continuing public education to prevent transport of bullfrogs in MT. More broadly, this study demonstrates how genetic approaches can reveal key properties of a biological invasion to inform management strategies.