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Population genomics of free-ranging Great Plains white-tailed and mule deer reflects a long history of interspecific hybridization

December 2, 2021

Hybridization is a natural process at species-range boundaries that may variably promote the speciation process or break down species barriers but minimally will influence management outcomes of distinct populations. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have broad and overlapping distributions in North America and a recognized capacity for interspecific hybridization. In response to contemporary environmental change to any of one or multiple still-unknown factors, mule deer range is contracting westward accompanied by a westward expansion of white-tailed deer, leading to increasing interactions, opportunities for gene flow, and associated conservation implications. To quantify genetic diversity, phylogenomic structure, and dynamics of hybridization in sympatric populations of white-tailed and mule deer, we used mitochondrial cytochrome b data coupled with SNP loci discovered with double-digest restriction site-associated DNA sequencing. We recovered 25,018 SNPs across 92 deer samples from both species, collected from two regions of western Kansas. Eight individuals with unambiguous external morphology representing both species were of hybrid origin (8.7%), and represented the product of multi-generational backcrossing. Mitochondrial data showed both ancient and recent directional discordance with morphological species assignments, reflecting a legacy of mule deer males mating with white-tailed deer females. Mule deer had lower genetic diversity than white-tailed deer, and both mitochondrial and nuclear data suggest contemporary mule deer effective population decline. Landscape genetic analyses show relative isolation between the two study regions for white-tailed deer, but greater connectivity among mule deer, with predominant movement from north to south. Collectively, our results suggest a long history of gene flow between these species in the Great Plains and hint at evolutionary processes that purge incompatible functional genomic elements as a result of hybridization. Surviving hybrids evidently may be reproductive, but with unknown consequences for the future integrity of these species, population trajectories, or relative susceptibility to emerging pathogens.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Population genomics of free-ranging Great Plains white-tailed and mule deer reflects a long history of interspecific hybridization
DOI 10.1111/eva.13330
Authors Fraser J. Combe, Levi Jaster, Andrew Ricketts, David A. Haukos, Andrew G. Hope
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Evolutionary Applications
Series Number
Index ID 70229711
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle