Genomic legacy of migration in endangered caribou

Maria Cavedon, Bridgett vonHoldt, Mark Hebblewhite, Troy Hegel, Elizabeth Heppenheimer, Dave Hervieux, Stefano Mariani, Helen Schwantje, Robin Steenweg, Jessica Theoret, Megan Watters, Marco Musiani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Wide-ranging animals, including migratory species, are significantly threatened by the effects of habitat fragmentation and habitat loss. In the case of terrestrial mammals, this results in nearly a quarter of species being at risk of extinction. Caribou are one such example of a wide-ranging, migratory, terrestrial, and endangered mammal. In populations of caribou, the proportion of individuals considered as “migrants” can vary dramatically. There is therefore a possibility that, under the condition that migratory behavior is genetically determined, those individuals or populations that are migratory will be further impacted by humans, and this impact could result in the permanent loss of the migratory trait in some populations. However, genetic determination of migration has not previously been studied in an endangered terrestrial mammal. We examined migratory behavior of 139 GPS-collared endangered caribou in western North America and carried out genomic scans for the same individuals. Here we determine a genetic subdivision of caribou into a Northern and a Southern genetic cluster. We also detect >50 SNPs associated with migratory behavior, which are in genes with hypothesized roles in determining migration in other organisms. Furthermore, we determine that propensity to migrate depends upon the proportion of ancestry in individual caribou, and thus on the evolutionary history of its migratory and sedentary subspecies. If, as we report, migratory behavior is influenced by genes, caribou could be further impacted by the loss of the migratory trait in some isolated populations already at low numbers. Our results indicating an ancestral genetic component also suggest that the migratory trait and their associated genetic mutations could not be easily re-established when lost in a population.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1009974
JournalPLoS Genetics
Issue number2 February
StatePublished - Feb 10 2022


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