Publication co-authored by 2008 DPDF Animal Studies Fellow Karen H. Mager, Kevin E. Colson, and Kris J. Hundertmark:
Defining genetic populations and detecting hybridization with introduced or domestic taxa are two major concerns for the conservation of population-level diversity. We studied the genetic population structure of large, migratory caribou herds (Rangifer tarandus granti) on Alaska’s North Slope and their potential hybridization with introduced domestic reindeer (R. t. tarandus). Using a population genetics approach, we determined: (1) whether the four caribou herds could be differentiated; (2) how distance and population size appear to drive genetic population structure; and (3) how contact with reindeer has affected the genetic identity of herds. Samples from four caribou herds (n = 245) and reindeer (n = 67) were analyzed at 19 microsatellite loci. We found that North Slope caribou are isolated by distance, with no differentiation among herd pairs except for the most geographically distant herds (F st = 0.003, Jost’s D = 0.023; P-values < 0.001). We detected reindeer-caribou admixture in all populations except Kodiak Island, including 8 % of individuals in caribou herds and 14 % of individuals in Seward Peninsula reindeer herds. However, considering the stable or increasing trend in North Slope herds, reindeer introgression has had no apparent deleterious effect on herd demographics. Our findings indicate long-term genetic exchange among North Slope caribou herds when their ranges overlap, and suggest that herd size may influence susceptibility to reindeer introgression. As North Slope herd ranges are increasingly altered by industrial development, this study can provide a baseline for detecting potential future impacts to what are currently large, diverse, and naturally evolving herds.