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Frontiers of Biogeography

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Refining genetic boundaries for Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in the western Sonoran Desert: the influence of the Coachella Valley on gene flow among populations in southern California


Understanding the influence of geographic features on the evolutionary history and population structure of a species can assist wildlife managers in delimiting genetic units (GUs) for conservation and management. Landscape features including mountains, low elevation depressions, and even roads can influence connectivity and gene flow among Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) populations. Substantial changes in the landscape of the American Southwest occurred during the last six million years (including the formation of the Gulf of California and the lower Colorado River), which shaped the distribution and genetic structuring of tortoise populations. The area northwest of the Gulf of California is occupied by the Salton Trough, including the Coachella Valley at its northern end. Much of this area is below sea level and unsuitable as tortoise habitat, thus forming a potential barrier for gene flow. We assessed genetic relationships among three tortoise populations separated by the Coachella Valley. Two adjacent populations were on the east side of the valley in the foothills of the Cottonwood and Orocopia mountains separated by Interstate 10. The third population, Mesa, was located about 87 km away in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains at the far northwestern tip of the valley. The Cottonwood and Orocopia localities showed genetic affiliation with the adjacent Colorado Desert GU immediately to the east, and the Mesa population exhibited affiliation with both the Southern Mojave and Colorado Desert GUs, despite having a greater geographic distance (0.5x–1.5x greater) to the Colorado Desert GU. The genetic affiliation with the Colorado Desert GU suggests that the boundary for that GU needs to be substantially extended to the west to include the desert tortoise populations around the Coachella Valley. Their inclusion in the Colorado Desert GU may benefit these often overlooked populations when recovery actions are considered.

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