Surrounding landscape, habitat and hybridization dynamics drive population structure and genetic diversity in the Saltmarsh Sparrow

Academic Article


  • Abstract Determining factors that shape a species’ population genetic structure is beneficial for identifying effective conservation practices. We assessed population structure and genetic diversity for Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta), an imperiled tidal marsh specialist, using 13 microsatellite markers and 964 individuals sampled from 24 marshes across the breeding range. We show that Saltmarsh Sparrow populations are structured regionally by isolation-by-distance, with gene flow occurring among marshes within ~110 to 135 km of one another. Isolation-by-resistance and isolation-by-environment also shape genetic variation; several habitat and landscape features are associated with genetic diversity and genetic divergence among populations. Human development in the surrounding landscape isolates breeding marshes, reducing genetic diversity, and increasing population genetic divergence, while surrounding marshland and patch habitat quality (proportion high marsh and sea-level-rise trend) have the opposite effect. The distance of the breeding marsh to the Atlantic Ocean also influences genetic variation, with marshes farther inland being more divergent than coastal marshes. In northern marshes, hybridization with Nelson’s Sparrow (A. nelsoni) strongly influences Saltmarsh Sparrow genetic variation, by increasing genetic diversity in the population; this has a concomitant effect of increasing genetic differentiation of marshes with high levels of introgression. From a conservation perspective, we found that the majority of population clusters have low effective population sizes, suggesting a lack of resiliency. To conserve the representative breadth of genetic and ecological diversity and to ensure redundancy of populations, it will be important to protect a diversity of marsh types across the latitudinal gradient of the species range, including multiple inland, coastal, and urban populations, which we have shown to exhibit signals of genetic differentiation. It will also require maintaining connectivity at a regional level, by promoting high marsh habitat at the scale of gene flow (~130 km), while also ensuring “stepping stone” populations across the range.
  • Authors

  • Walsh, Jennifer
  • Fenderson, Lindsey E
  • Elphick, Chris S
  • Cohen, Jonathan B
  • Field, Christopher R
  • Garey, Laura K
  • Hodgman, Thomas P
  • Kocek, Alison R
  • Longenecker, Rebecca
  • O’Brien, Kathleen M
  • Olsen, Brian J
  • Ruskin, Katharine J
  • Shriver, W Gregory
  • Kovach, Adrienne
  • Status

    Publication Date

  • October 28, 2023
  • Has Subject Area

    Digital Object Identifier (doi)


  • 125
  • Issue

  • 4