Conservation genetics of an endangered grassland butterfly (Oarisma poweshiek) reveals historically high gene flow despite recent and rapid range loss
1. In poorly dispersing species gene flow can be facilitated when suitable habitat is widespread, allowing for increased dispersal between neighbouring locations. The Poweshiek skipperling [Oarisma poweshiek (Parker)], a federally endangered butterfly, has undergone a rapid, recent demographic decline following the loss of tallgrass prairie and fen habitats range wide. The loss of habitat, now restricted geographic range, and poor dispersal ability have left O. poweshiek at increased risk of extinction. 2. We studied the population genetics of six remaining populations of O. poweshiek in order to test the hypothesis that gene flow was historically high despite limited long-distance dispersal capability. Utilising nine microsatellite loci developed by PacBio sequencing, we tested for patterns of isolation by distance, low population genetic structure and alternative gene flow models. 3. Populations from southern Manitoba, Canada to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, USA are only weakly genetically differentiated despite having low diversity. We found no support for isolation by distance, and Bayesian estimates of historical gene flow support our hypothesis that high levels of gene flow previously connected populations from Michigan to Wisconsin. 4. Prairie grasslands have been reduced tremendously over the past century, but the low mobility of O. poweshiek suggests that rapid loss of populations over the past decade cannot be simply explained by fragmentation of habitat. 5. As a species at high risk of extinction, understanding historical processes of gene flow will allow for informed management decisions with respect to head-starting individuals for population reintroductions and for conserving networks of habitat that will allow for high levels of gene flow.