Population structure, gene flow, and genetic diversity of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep informed by genomic analysis
Flesch, Elizabeth Pearl
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This dissertation evaluated the genomics of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) herds across the Rocky Mountain West to determine optimal sample size for estimating kinship within and between populations (Chapter Two), to detect gene flow due to natural dispersal and translocations (Chapter Three), and to evaluate the correlation between genetic diversity and influences on population size (Chapter Four). To date, wildlife managers have moved many bighorn sheep across the Rocky Mountain West in an effort to provide new genetic diversity to isolated herds. However, little is known about the genetics of these herds and the real impacts of translocations. To learn how populations have been impacted by these management actions, we genotyped 511 bighorn sheep from multiple populations using a new cutting-edge genomic research technique, the Illumina Ovine High Density array, which contained about 24,000 to 30,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms informative for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. First, we determined that a sample size of 20 to 25 bighorn sheep was adequate for assessment of intra- and interpopulation kinship. In addition, we concluded that a universal sample size rule for all wild populations or genetic marker types may not be able to sufficiently address the complexities that impact genomic kinship estimates. Secondly, we synthesized genomic evidence across multiple analyses to evaluate 24 different translocation events; we detected eight successful reintroductions and five successful augmentations. One native population founded most of the examined reintroduced herds, suggesting that environmental conditions did not need to match for populations to persist following reintroduction. Finally, we determined that influences on population size over time were correlated with genetic diversity. Gene flow variables, including unassisted connectivity and animals contributed in augmentations, were more important predictors than historic minimum population size and origin (i.e. native vs. reintroduced). This hypothesis-based research approach will give wildlife managers additional biological insight to help inform various management options for bighorn sheep restoration and conservation.