Repeated Habitat Disturbances by Fire Decrease Local Effective Population Size

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Abstract

Effective population size is a fundamental parameter in population genetics, and factors that alter effective population size will shape the genetic characteristics of populations. Habitat disturbance may have a large effect on genetic characteristics of populations by influencing immigration and gene flow, particularly in fragmented habitats. We used the Florida Sand Skink (Plestiodon reynoldsi) to investigate the effect of fire-based habitat disturbances on the effective population size in the highly threatened, severely fragmented, and fire dependent Florida scrub habitat. We screened 7 microsatellite loci in 604 individuals collected from 12 locations at Archbold Biological Station. Archbold Biological Station has an active fire management plan and detailed records of fires dating to 1967. Our objective was to determine how the timing, number, and intervals between fires affect effective population size, focusing on multiple fires in the same location. Effective population size was higher in areas that had not been burned for more than 10 years and decreased with number of fires and shorter time between fires. A similar pattern was observed in abundance: increasing abundance with time-since-fire and decreasing abundance with number of fires. The ratio of effective population size to census size was higher at sites with more recent fires and tended to decrease with time-since-last-fire. These results suggest that habitat disturbances, such as fire, may have a large effect in the genetic characteristics of local populations and that Florida Sand Skinks are well adapted to the natural fire dynamics required to maintain Florida scrub.

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