Multiscale analysis reveals restricted gene flow and a linear gradient in heterozygosity for an island population of feral horses.
We studied the genetic (microsatellite) diversity of a feral population of horses (Equus caballus L., 1758) on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada (1983-2003), at two spatial scales: (1) for the island as a whole and (2) at the level of four equally sized subdivisions along the length of Sable Island, which is a long (42 km) and narrow (1.5 km) vegetated sand bar. At the island scale (n=264 horses), observed heterozygosity over 10 loci was 0.647±0.035 (mean±1 SE), while expected heterozygosity was 0.696±0.029; we observed significant heterozygote deficiency with all loci considered (P<0.0001). At the subdivision scale, observed heterozygosity ranged from 0.589 to 0.694 in a gradient from west to east. We observed a corresponding gradient in effective number of alleles and allelic richness. Pairwise values of FST were significant for most subdivision pairs, ranging as high as 0.067 from west to east. Western areas showed highest levels of inbreeding (FIS=0.113) with outbreeding indicated in the east (FIS=-0.008). Our results suggest that for a large mammal that lives in polygynous social groups, like the feral horse, gene flow along linear habitats (corridors) may be restricted (relative to the dispersal capabilities of the species), even over short distances.