Do genetic structure and landscape heterogeneity impact color morph frequency in a polymorphic salamander?

13 April 2019

Hantak, Maggie; Page, Robert; Converse, Paul; Anthony, Carl; Hickerson, Cari-Ann; Kuchta, Shawn

Landscape heterogeneity plays an important role in population structure and divergence, particularly for species with limited vagility. Here, we used a landscape genetic approach to identify how landscape and environmental variables affect genetic structure and color morph frequency in a polymorphic salamander. The Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus, is widely distributed in northeastern North America and contains two common color morphs, striped and unstriped, that are divergent in ecology, behavior, and physiology. To quantify population structure, rates of gene flow, and genetic drift, we amplified 10 microsatellite loci from 648 individuals across 28 sampling localities. This study was conducted in northern Ohio, where populations of P. cinereus exhibit an unusually wide range of morph frequency variation. To test whether genetic distance was more correlated with morph frequency, elevation, canopy cover, waterways, ecological niche, or geographic distance, we used resistance distance and least cost path analyses. We then examined whether landscape and environmental variables, genetic distance, or geographic distance were correlated with variation in morph frequency. Tests for population structure revealed three genetic clusters across our sampling range, with one cluster monomorphic for the striped morph. Rates of gene flow and genetic drift were low to moderate across sites. Genetic distance was most correlated with ecological niche, elevation, and a combination of landscape and environmental variables. In contrast, morph frequency variation was correlated with waterways and geographic distance. Thus, our results suggest that selection is also an important evolutionary force across our sites, and a balance between gene flow, genetic drift, and selection interact to maintain the two color morphs.