Phylogeography, genetic stocks, and conservation implications for an Australian endemic marine turtle

Nancy N. FitzSimmons, Stewart D. Pittard, Nathan McIntyre, Michael P. Jensen, Mick Guinea, Mark Hamann, Rod Kennett, Brett Leis, Colin J. Limpus, Duncan J. Limpus, Megan J. McCann, Anna J. MacDonald, Glenn McFarlane, C. John Parmenter, Kellie Pendoley, Robert T. Prince, Leigh Scheltinga, Kathrin Theissinger, Anton D. Tucker, David WaayersAndrea Whiting, Scott Whiting

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Identification of the geographic extent of population boundaries, the distribution of genetic lineages, and the amount of genetic exchange among breeding groups is needed for effective conservation of vulnerable marine migratory species. This is particularly true of the flatback turtle (Natator depressus), which only breeds in Australia but has extensive migrations that can include international waters. This study investigated the phylogeography and genetic structure among 17 flatback turtle rookeries across their range by sequencing an 810 bp portion of the mitochondrial DNA in 889 samples and genotyping 10 microsatellite loci in 598 samples. There was low phylogenetic divergence among haplotypes and evidence of recent population expansion, likely in the late Pleistocene. A predominant haplotype was found across all rookeries, but other haplotype groups were regionally specific. In general, there was agreement in patterns of genetic differentiation in the mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite data, and in some pairwise comparisons a higher mutation rate of microsatellites provided stronger evidence of differentiation. These results suggest natal philopatry operates in the choice of breeding locations for males as well as females. Evidence of genetic connectivity among neighbouring rookeries led to the identification of seven genetic stocks. Geographic boundaries of rookeries used by genetic stocks varied widely (160–1,300 km), highlighting a need for field studies to better understand movement patterns. Hierarchical analysis of molecular variance identified significant genetic differentiation based upon genetic stock, nesting phenology (summer vs. winter nesters), and a west–east discontinuity across Torres Strait. A pattern of isolation by distance was identified, which was most strongly observed in the microsatellite data. In combination with tagging and telemetry studies, these results will allow better quantification of stock-specific threats along migratory routes and in foraging habitats. Implications of climate change will be stock specific and may depend upon the extent of genetic connectivity between neighbouring stocks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-460
Number of pages21
JournalAquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


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