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The environment plays an important role in the movement of individuals and their associated genes among populations, which facilitates gene flow. Gene flow can help maintain the genetic diversity both within and between populations and counter the negative impact of genetic drift, which can decrease the fitness of individuals. Sympatric species can have different habitat preferences, and thus can exhibit different patterns of genetic variability and population structure. The specialist-generalist variation hypothesis (SGVH) predicts that specialists will have lower genetic diversity, lower effective population sizes (Ne), and less gene flow among populations. In this study, we used spatially explicit, individual-based comparative approaches to test SGVH predictions in two sympatric cottontail species and identify environmental variables that influence their gene flow. New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is the only native cottontail in the Northeast US, an early successional habitat specialist, and a species of conservation concern. Eastern cottontail (S. floridanus) is an invasive species in the Northeast US and a habitat generalist. We characterized each species’ genomic variation by developing double-digest Restriction-site Associated DNA sequence single nucleotide polymorphism markers, quantified their habitat with Geographic Information System environmental variables, and conducted our analyses at multiple scales. Surprisingly, both species had similar levels of genetic diversity and eastern cottontail’s Ne was only higher than New England cottontail in one of three subregions. At a regional level, the population clusters of New England cottontail were more distinct than eastern cottontail, but the subregional levels showed more geographic areas of restricted gene flow for eastern cottontail than New England cottontail. In general, the environmental variables had the predicted effect on each species’ gene flow. However, the most important environmental variable varied by subregion and species, which shows that location and species matter. Our results provide partial support for the SGVH and the identification of environmental variables that facilitate or impede gene flow can be used to help inform management decisions to conserve New England cottontail.

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Frontiers in Genetics



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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.