In North America, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) experienced diversification in separate refugia before the last glacial maximum. Geographical isolation produced the barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) with its distinctive migratory habits, and the woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), which has sedentary behaviour and is threatened across large areas of its distribution. Herein we report on the phylogenetics, population structure, and migratory habits of caribou in the Canadian Rockies, utilizing mtDNA, microsatellites, and GPS spatial data for 223 individuals.
Mitochondrial DNA analyses show the occurrence of two highly diverged lineages; the Beringian–Eurasian and North American lineages, while microsatellite data reveal that present-day Rockies’ caribou populations have resulted from interbreeding between these diverged lineages. An ice-free corridor at the end of the last glaciation likely allowed, for the first time, for barren-ground caribou to migrate from the North and overlap with woodland caribou expanding from the South. The lack of correlation between nuclear and mitochondrial data may indicate that different environmental forces, which might also include human-caused habitat loss and fragmentation, are currently reshaping the population structure of this postglacial hybrid swarm. Furthermore, spatial ecological data show evidence of pronounced migratory behaviour within the study area, and suggest that the probability of being migratory may be higher in individual caribou carrying a Beringian–Eurasian haplotype which is mainly associated with the barren-ground subspecies. Overall, our analyses reveal an intriguing example of postglacial mixing of diverged lineages. In a landscape that is changing due to climatic and human-mediated factors, an understanding of these dynamics, both past and present, is essential for management and conservation of these populations.