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We employ mitochondrial (mt) DNA markers to examine the matrilineal component of population genetic structure in the snow goose Chen caerulescens. From banding returns, it is known that females typically nest at their natal or prior nest site, whereas males pair with females on mixed wintering grounds and mediate considerable nuclear gene flow between geographically separate breeding colonies. Despite site philopatry documented for females, mtDNA markers show no clear distinctions between nesting populations across the species' range from Wrangel Island, USSR to Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Two major mtDNA clades (as well as rare haplotypes) are distributed widely and provide one of the few available examples of a phylogeographic pattern in which phylogenetic discontinuity in a gene tree exists without obvious geographic localization within a species' range. The major mtDNA clades may have differentiated in Pleistocene refugia, and colonized current nesting sites through recent range expansion via pulsed or continual low-level dispersal by females. The contrast between results of banding returns and mtDNA distributions in the snow goose raises general issues regarding population structure: direct contemporary observations on dispersal and gene flow can in some cases convey a misleading impression of phylogeographic population structure, because they fail to access the evolutionary component of population connectedness; conversely, geographic distributions of genetic markers can provide a misleading impression of contemporary dispersal and gene flow because they retain a record of evolutionary events and past demographic parameters that may differ from those of the present. An understanding of population structure requires integration of both evolutionary (genetic) and contemporary (direct observational) perspectives.

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