Genetic Diversity and Population Structure of Mesoamerican Jaguars (Panthera onca): Implications for Conservation and Management
Mesoamerican jaguars (Panthera onca) have been extirpated from over 77% of their historic range, inhabiting fragmented landscapes at potentially reduced population sizes. Maintaining and restoring genetic diversity and connectivity across human-altered landscapes has become a major conservation priority; nonetheless large-scale genetic monitoring of natural populations is rare. This is the first regional conservation genetic study of jaguars to primarily use fecal samples collected in the wild across five Mesoamerican countries: Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. We genotyped 445 jaguar fecal samples and examined patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity among 115 individual jaguars using data from 12 microsatellite loci. Overall, moderate levels of genetic variation were detected (NA = 4.50 ± 1.05, AR = 3.43 ± 0.22, HE = 0.59 ± 0.04), with Mexico having the lowest genetic diversity, followed by Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Costa Rica. Population-based gene flow measures (FST = 0.09 to 0.15, Dest = 0.09 to 0.21), principal component analysis, and Bayesian clustering applied in a hierarchical framework revealed significant genetic structure in Mesoamerican jaguars, roughly grouping individuals into four genetic clusters with varying levels of admixture. Gene flow was highest among Selva Maya jaguars (northern Guatemala and central Belize), whereas genetic differentiation among all other sampling sites was moderate. Genetic subdivision was most pronounced between Selva Maya and Honduran jaguars, suggesting limited jaguar movement between these close geographic regions and ultimately refuting the hypothesis of contemporary panmixia. To maintain a critical linkage for jaguars dispersing through the Mesoamerican landscape and ensure long-term viability of this near threatened species, we recommend continued management and maintenance of jaguar corridors. The baseline genetic data provided by this study underscores the importance of understanding levels of genetic diversity and connectivity to making informed management and conservation decisions with the goal to maintain functional connectivity across the region.