The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is one of the most widespread bat species in North America and is experiencing severe population declines because of an emerging fungal disease, white-nose syndrome (WNS). To manage and conserve this species effectively it is important to understand patterns of gene flow and population connectivity to identify possible barriers to disease transmission. However, little is known about the population genetic structure of little brown bats, and to date, no studies have investigated population structure across their entire range. We examined mitochondrial DNA and nuclear microsatellites in 637 little brown bats (including all currently recognized subspecific lineages) from 29 locations across North America, to assess levels of genetic variation and population differentiation across the range of the species, including areas affected by WNS and those currently unaffected. We identified considerable spatial variation in patterns of female dispersal and significant genetic variation between populations in eastern versus western portions of the range. Overall levels of nuclear genetic differentiation were low, and there is no evidence for any major barriers to gene flow across their range. However, patterns of mtDNA differentiation are highly variable, with high ΦST values between most sample pairs (including between all western samples, between western and eastern samples, and between some eastern samples), while low mitochondrial differentiation was observed within two groups of samples found in central and eastern regions of North America. Furthermore, the Alaskan population was highly differentiated from all others, and western populations were characterized by isolation by distance while eastern populations were not. These data raise the possibility that the current patterns of spread of WNS observed in eastern North America may not apply to the entire range and that there may be broad-scale spatial variation in the risk of WNS transmission and occurrence if the disease continues to spread west.
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