Episodic population fragmentation and gene flow reveal a trade-off between heterozygosity and allelic richness

Peta Hill, Christopher R. Dickman, Russell Dinnage, Richard Duncan, Scott Edwards, Aaron C. Greenville, SD SARRE, Emily Stringer, Glenda M. Wardle, Bernd Gruber

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Abstract

In episodic environments like deserts, populations of some animal species exhibit irregular fluctuations such that populations are alternately large and connected or small and isolated. Such dynamics are typically driven by periodic resource pulses due, for example, to large but infrequent rainfall events. The repeated population bottlenecks resulting from fragmentation should lower genetic diversity over time, yet species undergoing these fluctuations appear to maintain high levels of genetic diversity. To resolve this apparent paradox, we simulated a metapopulation of constant size undergoing repeat episodes of fragmentation and change in gene flow to mimic outcomes experienced by mammals in an Australian desert. We show that episodic fragmentation and gene flow have contrasting effects on two measures of genetic diversity: heterozygosity and allelic richness. Specifically, fragmentation into many, small subpopulations, coupled with periods of infrequent gene flow, preserves allelic richness at the expense of heterozygosity. In contrast, fragmentation into a few, large subpopulations maintains heterozygosity at the expense of allelic richness. The strength of the trade-off between heterozygosity and allelic richness depends on the amount of gene flow and the frequency of gene flow events. Our results imply that the type of genetic diversity maintained among species living in strongly fluctuating environments will depend on the way populations fragment, with our results highlighting different mechanisms for maintaining allelic richness and heterozygosity in small, fragmented populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6766-6776
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular Ecology
Volume32
Issue number24
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 Oct 2023

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