Gene flow and demographic history of leopards (Panthera pardus) in the central Indian highlands

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Gene flow is a critical ecological process that must be maintained in order to counteract the detrimental effects of genetic drift in subdivided populations, with conservation benefits ranging from promoting the persistence of small populations to spreading adaptive traits in changing environments. We evaluated historical and contemporary gene flow and effective population sizes of leopards in a landscape in central India using noninvasive sampling. Despite the dramatic changes in land-use patterns in this landscape through recent times, we did not detect any signs that the leopard populations have been through a genetic bottleneck, and they appear to have maintained migration–drift equilibrium. We found that historical levels of gene flow (mean mh = 0.07) were significantly higher than contemporary levels (mean mc = 0.03), and populations with large effective population sizes (Satpura and Kanha Tiger Reserves) are the larger exporters of migrants at both timescales. The greatest decline in historical versus contemporary gene flow is between pairs of reserves that are currently not connected by forest corridors (i.e., Melghat-Pench mh − mc = 0.063; and Kanha-Satpura mh − mc = 0.054). We attribute this reduction in gene flow to accelerated fragmentation and habitat alteration in the landscape over the past few centuries, and suggest protection of forest corridors to maintain gene flow in this landscape.

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