European Journal of Wildlife Research, 59(5):719-728, 2013. Paper abstract bibtex
Populations at the rear edge of the species' range are often at a high risk of extinction due to their isolation, fragmentation and small population sizes. However, these populations also play a relevant role in the conservation of biodiversity since they may represent a valuable genetic resource. The endangered Cantabrian Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus cantabricus) inhabits deciduous forests of the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, at the southwestern limit of the species' range. Recently, nine Cantabrian Capercaillie leks were discovered in Pyrenean oak forests of the southern slope of the Cantabrian range, where the subspecies historically occurred. To elucidate if the origin of this peripheral population nucleus is the result of a historical range contraction or a recent re-colonization from the core population, we sampled moulted feathers from all the known leks in the southern peripheral forests and from the adjacent main core population, based on nine microsatellite loci genotypes. No significant genetic differentiation was detected between main core and peripheral forests suggesting that gene flow is not interrupted between these nuclei. Contrary to expected, peripheral forests did not represent sink populations, since gene flow mainly occurred from southern peripheral to northern main core forests. Therefore, the origin of these birds inhabiting the peripheral nucleus seems not to be a recent colonization but relicts from the former distribution range that have remained unnoticed in a drier and warmer environment than described so far for the species. Cantabrian Capercaillie faces a high risk of extinction in the southernmost forests of its distribution, not only because of its peripheral location but also due to its small population size, low genetic diversity and low incoming gene flow. According to our results, this peripheral nucleus could represent an expanding edge for the population if Pyrenean oak forests continue to spread out southwards and consequently stress the need for conservation programs to preserve habitat availability and forest connectivity.