The level and distribution of genetic variation is thought to be affected primarily by the size of individual populations and by gene flow among populations. Although the effects of population size have frequently been examined, the contributions of regional gene flow to levels of genetic variation are less well known. Here I examine the effects of population size and the number of neighboring populations (metapopulation density) on the distribution and maintenance of genetic diversity in an endemic herbaceous perennial. Reductions in the proportion of polymorphic loci and the effective number of alleles per locus were apparent for many populations with a census size of less than 100 individuals, but no effects of population size on levels of inbreeding were detected. I assess the effects of regional population density on levels of diversity and inbreeding using stepwise regression analysis of metapopulation diameter (i.e., the size of a circle within which population density is estimated). This procedure provides a spatially explicit evaluation of the effects of metapopulation size on population genetic parameters and indicates the critical number of neighboring populations (fragmentation threshold) for the regional maintenance of genetic diversity. Stepwise regression analyses revealed fragmentation thresholds at two levels; at a scale of 2 km, where small metapopulations resulted in greater levels of selfing or sibling mating, and at a scale of 8 km, where metapopulation size was positively associated with higher levels of genetic diversity. I hypothesize that the smaller fragmentation threshold may reflect higher levels of selfing in isolated populations because of the absence of pollinators. The larger threshold probably indicates the maximum distance over which pollen dispersal rates are high enough to counteract genetic drift. This study demonstrates that the regional distribution of populations can be an important factor for the long-term maintenance of genetic variation.
Corresponding Editor: O. Savolainen