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Phylogeography of the Koala, (Phascolarctos cinereus), and Harmonising Data to Inform Conservation


Linda E. Neaves1,2*, Greta J. Frankham1, Siobhan Dennison1, Sean FitzGibbon3, Cheyne Flannagan4, Amber Gillett5, Emily Hynes6, Kathrine Handasyde7, Kristofer M. Helgen8, Kyriakos Tsangaras9, Alex D. Greenwood10,11, Mark D. B. Eldridge1, Rebecca N. Johnson1


1 Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics, Australian Museum Research Institute, 1 William Street, Sydney, New South Wales, 2010, Australia,

2 Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 20A Inverleith Row, Edinburgh, EH3 5LR, United Kingdom,

3 School of Agriculture and Food Science, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, 4072, Australia,

4 Koala Hospital Port Macquarie, PO Box 236, Port Macquarie, NSW, 2444, Australia,

5 Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, Beerwah, Queensland, 4519, Australia,

6 Ecoplan Australia Pty Ltd, PO Box 968 Torquay, Victoria, 3228, Australia,

7 School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne, Victoria, 3010, Australia,

8 National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, United States of America,

9 Department of Translational Genetics, The Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, 6 International Airport Ave., 2370 Nicosia, Cyprus,

10 Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, 10315, Berlin, Germany,

11 Department of Veterinary Medicine, Freie Universität Berlin, 14163, Berlin, Germany
*


ABSTRACT
The Australian continent exhibits complex biogeographic patterns but studies of the impacts of Pleistocene climatic oscillation on the mesic environments of the Southern Hemisphere are limited. The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), one of Australias most iconic species, was historically widely distributed throughout much of eastern Australia but currently represents a complex conservation challenge. To better understand the challenges to koala genetic health, we assessed the phylogeographic history of the koala. Variation in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) Control Region (CR) was examined in 662 koalas sampled throughout their distribution. In addition, koala CR haplotypes accessioned to Genbank were evaluated and consolidated. A total of 53 unique CR haplotypes have been isolated from koalas to date (including 15 haplotypes novel to this study). The relationships among koala CR haplotypes were indicative of a single Evolutionary Significant Unit and do not support the recognition of subspecies, but were separated into four weakly differentiated lineages which correspond to three geographic clusters: a central lineage, a southern lineage and two northern lineages co-occurring north of Brisbane. The three geographic clusters were separated by known Pleistocene biogeographic barriers: the Brisbane River Valley and Clarence River Valley, although there was evidence of mixing amongst clusters. While there is evidence for historical connectivity, current koala populations exhibit greater structure, suggesting habitat fragmentation may have restricted female-mediated gene flow. Since mtDNA data informs conservation planning, we provide a summary of existing CR haplotypes, standardise nomenclature and make recommendations for future studies to  harmonise existing datasets. This holistic approach is critical to ensuring management is effective and small scale local population studies can be integrated into a wider species context.

 

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