The Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) has undergone large population declines over the last century as a result of direct and indirect anthropogenic factors. The genetic implications of these declines are unknown. We used historical museum specimens (pre-1960) and contemporary (2001–2005) samples to examine range-wide phylogeographic patterns and investigate potential loss in the species' genetic variation. We obtained sequences (522 bp) of the mitochondrial gene for NADH dehydrogenase subunit 6 (ND6) from 268 individuals from across the species' range. Phylogeographic analysis revealed no association with geography or traditional subspecies designations. However, we detected potential reductions in genetic diversity in contemporary samples from California and the Atlantic coast Least Tern from that in historical samples, suggesting that current genetic diversity in Least Tern populations is lower than in their pre-1960 counterparts. Our results offer unique insights into changes in the Least Tern's genetic diversity over the past century and highlight the importance and utility of museum specimens in studies of conservation genetics.
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