Evol Ecol Res 14: 921-932 (2012)     Full PDF if your library subscribes.

Genetic consequences of population decline in the Danish population of the little owl (Athene noctua)

Cino Pertoldi1,2,3, Irene Pellegrino4, Marco Cucco4, Nadia Mucci5, Ettore Randi2,5, Jørgen Terp Laursen6, Peter Sunde7, Volker Loeschcke1 and Torsten Nygaard Kristensen1,8,9

1Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark,  2Department 18/Section of Environmental Engineering, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark,  3Aalborg Zoo, Aalborg, Denmark,  4Department of Sciences and Innovative Technologies, University of Piemonte Orientale, Alessandria, Italy,  5Istituto Superiore per l’Ambiente e la Ricerca (ISPRA), Ozzano dell’Emilia (BO), Italy,  6Brabrand, Denmark,  7Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Rønde, Denmark,  8Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, Tjele, Denmark and  9NordGen – Nordic Genetic Resource Center, Ås, Norway

Correspondence: V. Loeschcke, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114–116, Building 1540, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.. E-mail: biovl@nf.au.dk


Background: Danish populations of the little owl (Athene noctua) have experienced dramatic declines in size over the past century. Before 1960 the little owl population was abundant in Denmark (estimated N > 2000), but between 1960 and 1980 the population declined rapidly, and since 1980 the little owl population has survived only in small and fragmented areas.

Question: Is the decline in population size associated with reduced genetic variation in these Danish populations of the little owl? Are the populations genetically fragmented?

Field site: Samples were collected from birds in Denmark (from 57°45′7″N to 54°33′35″N).

Methods: We extracted DNA from the feathers of museum specimens of Danish little owls collected between 1918 and 1980. We also extracted DNA from feathers collected between 1984 and 2010. We performed a genetic analysis of 15 microsatellites on these samples.

Conclusions: Older samples showed relatively little genetic variability, with more recent ones showing even less. In addition, pairwise FST values showed evidence for genetic substructuring with small but significant genetic differences between the extant population and the extinct owl populations on the Danish isle of Funen. The modest loss of genetic variability observed since the 1960s and 1970s may be associated with a diminished distributional range and population bottlenecks.

Keywords: conservation, microsatellites, old DNA, population bottlenecks, temporal and spatial variation.

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