Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA)

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Integrating genetic and stable isotope analyses to infer the population structure of the White-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis in Western Europe

Resano-Mayor J, Fernández-Martín Á, Hernández-Gómez S, Toranzo I, España A, Gil JA, de Gabriel M, Roa-Álvarez I, Strinella E, Hobson KA, Heckel G, Arlettaz R (2016), Journal of Ornithology, DOI 10.1007/s10336-016-1413-8

The population structure and seasonal movements of alpine birds in Europe are still largely unknown. Species living in high mountains now face acute risks of habitat loss, range contractions and local extinction due to current and projected climate change. Therefore, a better understanding of the spatial structuring and exchange among populations of European mountain birds is important from both ecological and conservation points of view. The White-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis is one of the most characteristic passerines of alpine habitats in Europe. Despite the fact that its breeding nuclei are relatively well defined, we still know little about the species’ population structure and movements in Western Europe. By analysing two mitochondrial loci (cytochrome b and the control region) and stable isotopes of hydrogen (δ2H), we assessed to what extent breeding populations of Whitewinged Snowfinches in the Cantabrian Mountains (CM), the Pyrenees and the Alps, and also a wintering population in the Eastern Pyrenees, function as a metapopulation. We first show the phylogenetic relationships of the Whitewinged Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis subsp. nivalis) within the Snowfinch complex. When assessing the population structure in Western Europe, most mitochondrial haplotypes were present in all breeding populations, but one was only found in the CM where it predominated. The most widespread haplotypes at the breeding grounds were found in the majority of the wintering individuals, but none of them showed the haplotype specific to the CM. We did not find differences in δ2H for the primary feathers among breeding populations, but rectrices of individuals wintering in the Pyrenees had considerably lower δ2H values: isotopic analysis could thus be useful to assign wintering birds to their Alpine breeding grounds. Further studies combining ringing and the analyses of intrinsic markers are an essential step in better appraising the species’ metapopulation dynamics and guiding conservation.