Detection of barriers to dispersal is masked by long lifespans and large population sizes

Jordan R. Hoffman, Janna R. Willoughby, Bradley J. Swanson, Kevin L. Pangle, David T. Zanatta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Population genetic analyses of species inhabiting fragmented landscapes are essential tools for conservation. Occasionally, analyses of fragmented populations find no evidence of isolation, even though a barrier to dispersal is apparent. In some cases, not enough time may have passed to observe divergence due to genetic drift, a problem particularly relevant for long-lived species with overlapping generations. Failing to consider this quality during population structure analyses could result in incorrect conclusions about the impact of fragmentation on the species. We designed a model to explore how lifespan and population size influence perceived population structure of isolated populations over time. This iterative model tracked how simulated populations of variable lifespan and population size were affected by drift alone, using a freshwater mussel, Quadrula quadrula (mapleleaf), as a model system. In addition to exhibiting dramatic lifespan variability among species, mussels are also highly imperiled and exhibit fragmentation by dams throughout the range of many species. Results indicated that, unless population size was small (<50 individuals) or lifespan short (<22 years), observing genetic divergence among populations was unlikely. Even if wild populations are isolated, observing population structure in long-lived mussels from modern damming practices is unlikely because it takes longer for population structure to develop in these species than most North American dams have existed. Larger population sizes and longer lifespans increase the time needed for significant divergence to occur. This study helps illuminate the factors that influence genetic responses by populations to isolation and provides a useful model for conservation-oriented research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9613-9623
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 2017


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