When is a native species invasive? Incursion of a novel predatory marsupial detected using molecular and historical data.
Aim: Range expansions facilitated by humans or in response to local biotic or abiotic stressors provide the opportunity for species to occupy novel environments. Classifying the status of newly expanded populations can be difficult, particularly when the timing and nature of the range expansion are unclear. Should native species in new habitats be considered invasive pests or actively conserved? Here, we present an analytical framework applied to an Australian marsupial, the sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), a species that preys upon on an endangered parrot in Tasmania, and whose provenance was uncertain. Location: Tasmania, Australia. Methods: We conducted an extensive search of historical records for sugar glider occurrences in Tasmania. Source material included museum collection data, early European expedition logs, community observation records, and peer-reviewed and grey literature. To determine the provenance of the Tasmanian population, we sequenced two mitochondrial genes and one nuclear gene in Tasmanian animals (n=27) and in individuals across the species' native range. We then estimated divergence times between Tasmania and southern Australian populations using phylogenetic and Bayesian analyses. Results: We found no historical evidence of sugar gliders occurring in Tasmania prior to 1835. All Tasmanian individuals (n=27) were genetically identical at the three genes surveyed here with those individuals being 0.125% divergent from individuals from a population in Victoria. Bayesian analysis of divergence between Tasmanian individuals and southern Australian individuals suggested a recent introduction of sugar gliders into Tasmania from southern Australia. Main conclusions: Molecular and historical data demonstrate that Tasmanian sugar gliders are a recent, post-European, anthropogenic introduction from mainland Victoria. This result has implications for the management of the species in relation to their impact on an endangered parrot. The analytical framework outlined here can assist environmental managers with the complex task of assessing the status of recently expanded or introduced native species.