An Interstate Highway Affects Gene Flow in a Top Reptilian Predator (Crotalus atrox) of the Sonoran
School of Natural Resources and the Environment University of Arizona, ENRII
1064 E. Lowell Street
Tucson, AZ 85719, USA
Roads can substantially impact the population connectivity of a wide range of terrestrial vertebrates, often resulting in loss of genetic diversity and an increase of spatial genetic structure. We studied the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), a large and abundant venomous predator, to test the hypothesis that a large and relatively new roadway in Arizona (Interstate Highway I-10) is a barrier that impacts gene flow and population genetics via habitat fragmentation. Based on 72 C. atrox sampled from three specific sampling sites (“subpopulations”) on both the west and east corridors of I-10, we used 30 nuclear microsatellite DNA loci and three mitochondrial DNA genes (2615 bp) to assess genetic diversity and structure, estimate effective population size (Ne), and describe patterns of gene flow. We found no evidence for loss of genetic diversity or a decrease in Ne between the three subpopulations. Our microsatellite analysis showed that two subpopulations in close proximity (4 km), but separated by I-10, showed greater levels of genetic differentiation than two subpopulations that were separated by a greater distance (7 km) and not by I-10 or any other obvious barriers. Mitochondrial DNA analyses showed neither significant genetic differentiation nor any indication of historically impeded gene flow. Tajima’s D and mismatch distribution tests revealed that demographic expansion is occurring in the overall population (all three subpopulations). Bayesian clustering and spatial genetic autocorrelation analyses of microsatellite data showed resistance to gene flow at the approximate location of I-10. Simulations that investigated gene flow between the subpopulations (with and without a highway barrier present) were consistent with our molecular results. Our work supports the view that I-10 has reduced gene flow in a population of C. atrox, an important reptilian predator of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. We will present several conservation recommendations for reversing this trend.