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Conference Paper in Published Proceedings



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Background: The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is the largest Neotropical bird of prey and is threatened by human persecution and habitat loss and fragmentation. Current conservation strategies include local education, captive rearing and reintroduction, and protection or creation of trans-national habitat blocks and corridors. Baseline genetic data prior to reintroduction of captive-bred stock is essential for guiding such efforts but has not been gathered previously.

Methodology/Findings: We assessed levels of genetic diversity, population structure and demographic history for harpy eagles using samples collected throughout a large portion of their geographic distribution in Central America (n = 32) and South America (n = 31). Based on 417 bp of mitochondrial control region sequence data, relatively high levels of haplotype and nucleotide diversity were estimated for both Central and South America, although haplotype diversity was significantly higher for South America. Historical restriction of gene flow across the Andes (i.e. between our Central and South American subgroups) is supported by coalescent analyses, the haplotype network and significant FST values, however reciprocally monophyletic lineages do not correspond to geographical locations in maximum likelihood analyses. A sudden population expansion for South America is indicated by a mismatch distribution analysis, and further supported by significant (p,0.05) negative values of Fu and Li’s DF and F, and Fu’s FS. This expansion, estimated at approximately 60 000 years BP (99 000–36 000 years BP 95% CI), encompasses a transition from a warm and dry time period prior to 50 000 years BP to an interval of maximum precipitation (50 000–36 000 years BP). Notably, this time period precedes the climatic and habitat changes associated with the last glacial maximum. In contrast, a multimodal distribution of haplotypes was observed for Central America suggesting either population equilibrium or a recent decline.

Significance: High levels of mitochondrial genetic diversity in combination with genetic differentiation among subgroups within regions and between regions highlight the importance of local population conservation in order to preserve maximal levels of genetic diversity in this species. Evidence of historically restricted female-mediated gene flow is an important consideration for captive-breeding programs.