North American caribou (Rangifer tarandus) herds commonly exhibit little nuclear genetic differentiation among adjacent herds, although available evidence supports strong demographic separation, even for herds with seasonal range overlap. During 1997–2003, we studied the Mentasta and Nelchina caribou herds in south-central Alaska using radiotelemetry to determine individual movements and range overlap during the breeding season, and nuclear and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers to assess levels of genetic differentiation. Although the herds were considered discrete because females calved in separate regions, individual movements and breeding-range overlap in some years provided opportunity for male-mediated gene flow, even without demographic interchange. Telemetry results revealed strong female philopatry, and little evidence of female emigration despite overlapping seasonal distributions. Analyses of 13 microsatellites indicated the Mentasta and Nelchina herds were not significantly differentiated using both traditional population-based analyses and individual-based Bayesian clustering analyses. However, we observed mtDNA differentiation between the 2 herds (FST = 0.041, P < 0.001). Although the Mentasta and Nelchina herds exhibit distinct population dynamics and physical characteristics, they demonstrate evidence of gene flow and thus function as a genetic metapopulation.
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Vol. 93 • No. 5