Fine-scale population differentiation and gene flow in a terrestrial salamander (Plethodon cinereus) living in continuous habitat

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Several recent studies have shown that amphibian populations may exhibit high genetic subdivision in areas with recent fragmentation and urban development. Less is known about the potential for genetic differentiation in continuous habitats. We studied genetic differentiation of red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) across a 2-km transect through continuous forest in Virginia, USA. Mark-recapture studies suggest very little dispersal for this species, whereas homing experiments and post-Pleistocene range expansion both suggest greater dispersal abilities. We used six microsatellite loci to examine genetic population structure and differentiation between eight subpopulations of red-backed salamanders at distances from 200 m to 2 km. We also used several methods to extrapolate dispersal frequencies and test for sex-biased dispersal. We found small, but detectable differentiation among populations, even at distances as small as 200 m. Differentiation was closely correlated with distance and both Mantel tests and assignment tests were consistent with an isolation-by-distance model for the population. Extrapolations of intergenerational variance in spatial position (σ2< 15 m2) and pair-wise dispersal frequencies (4Nm < 25 for plots separated by 300 m) both suggest limited gene flow. Additionally, tests for sex-biased dispersal imply that dispersal frequency is similarly low for both sexes. We suggest that these low levels of gene flow and the infrequent dispersal observed in mark-recapture studies may be reconciled with homing ability and range expansion if dispersing animals rarely succeed in breeding in saturated habitats, if dispersal is flexible depending on the availability of habitat, or if dispersal frequency varies across the geographic range of red-backed salamanders.