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Ecological characteristics explain neutral genetic variation of three coastal sparrow species.

Molecular Ecology 2024 March 14
Eco-phylogeographic approaches to comparative population genetic analyses allow for the inclusion of intrinsic influences as drivers of intraspecific genetic structure. This insight into microevolutionary processes, including changes within a species or lineage, provides better mechanistic understanding of species-specific interactions and enables predictions of evolutionary responses to environmental change. In this study, we used single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) identified from reduced representation sequencing to compare neutral population structure, isolation by distance (IBD), genetic diversity and effective population size (Ne ) across three closely related and co-distributed saltmarsh sparrow species differing along a specialization gradient-Nelson's (Ammospiza nelsoni subvirgata), saltmarsh (A. caudacuta) and seaside sparrows (A. maritima maritima). Using an eco-phylogeographic lens within a conservation management context, we tested predictions about species' degree of evolutionary history and ecological specialization to tidal marshes, habitat, current distribution and population status on population genetic metrics. Population structure differed among the species consistent with their current distribution and habitat factors, rather than degree of ecological specialization: seaside sparrows were panmictic, saltmarsh sparrows showed hierarchical structure and Nelson's sparrows were differentiated into multiple, genetically distinct populations. Neutral population genetic theory and demographic/evolutionary history predicted patterns of genetic diversity and Ne rather than degree of ecological specialization. Patterns of population variation and evolutionary distinctiveness (Shapely metric) suggest different conservation measures for long-term persistence and evolutionary potential in each species. Our findings contribute to a broader understanding of the complex factors influencing genetic variation, beyond specialist-generalist status and support the role of an eco-phylogeographic approach in population and conservation genetics.

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