Degree of landscape fragmentation influences genetic isolation among populations of a gliding mammal

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Taylor, AC, Walker, FM, Goldingay, RL, Ball, T & van der Ree, R 2011, 'Degree of landscape fragmentation influences genetic isolation among populations of a gliding mammal', PLoS One, vol. 6, no. 10, p. e26651.

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Forests and woodlands are under continuing pressure from urban and agricultural development. Tree-dependent mammals that rarely venture to the ground are likely to be highly sensitive to forest fragmentation. The Australian squirrel glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) provides an excellent case study to examine genetic (functional) connectivity among populations. It has an extensive range that occurs in a wide band along the east coast. However, its forest and woodland habitat has become greatly reduced in area and is severely fragmented within the southern inland part of the species' range, where it is recognised as threatened. Within central and northern coastal regions, habitat is much more intact and we thus hypothesise that genetic connectivity will be greater in this region than in the south. To test this we employed microsatellite analysis in a molecular population biology approach. Most sampling locations in the highly modified south showed signatures of genetic isolation. In contrast, a high level of genetic connectivity was inferred among most sampled populations in the more intact habitat of the coastal region, with samples collected 1400 km apart having similar genetic cluster membership. Nonetheless, some coastal populations associated with urbanisation and agriculture are genetically isolated, suggesting the historic pattern observed in the south is emerging on the coast. Our study demonstrates that massive landscape changes following European settlement have had substantial impacts on levels of connectivity among squirrel glider populations, as predicted on the basis of the species' ecology. This suggests that landscape planning and management in the south should be focused on restoring habitat connectivity where feasible, while along the coast, existing habitat connectivity must be maintained and recent losses restored. Molecular population biology approaches provide a ready means for identifying fragmentation effects on a species at multiple scales. Such studies are required to examine the generality of our findings for other tree-dependent species.