Scientific Reports (2017)

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-14812-z


Understanding demographic trends and patterns of gene flow in an endangered species is crucial for devising conservation strategies. Here, we examined the extent of population structure and recent evolution of the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis). By analysing genetic variation at the mitochondrial and nuclear microsatellite loci for 148 individuals, we identified three populations along the Yangtze River, each one connected to a group of admixed ancestry. Each population displayed extremely low genetic diversity, consistent with extremely small effective size (≤92 individuals). Habitat degradation and distribution gaps correlated with highly asymmetric gene-flow that was inefficient in maintaining connectivity between populations. Genetic inferences of historical demography revealed that the populations in the Yangtze descended from a small number of founders colonizing the river from the sea during the last Ice Age. The colonization was followed by a rapid population split during the last millennium predating the Chinese Modern Economy Development. However, genetic diversity showed a clear footprint of population contraction over the last 50 years leaving only ~2% of the pre-collapsed size, consistent with the population collapses reported from field studies. This genetic perspective provides background information for devising mitigation strategies to prevent this species from extinction.