Demographic history shapes North American gray wolf genomic diversity and informs species' conservation

Bridgett M. vonHoldt, Daniel R. Stahler, Kristin E. Brzeski, Marco Musiani, Rolf Peterson, Michael Phillips, John Stephenson, Kent Laudon, Erin Meredith, John A. Vucetich, Jennifer A. Leonard, Robert K. Wayne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Effective population size estimates are critical information needed for evolutionary predictions and conservation decisions. This is particularly true for species with social factors that restrict access to breeding or experience repeated fluctuations in population size across generations. We investigated the genomic estimates of effective population size along with diversity, subdivision, and inbreeding from 162,109 minimally filtered and 81,595 statistically neutral and unlinked SNPs genotyped in 437 grey wolf samples from North America collected between 1986 and 2021. We found genetic structure across North America, represented by three distinct demographic histories of western, central, and eastern regions of the continent. Further, grey wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains have lower genomic diversity than wolves of the western Great Lakes and have declined over time. Effective population size estimates revealed the historical signatures of continental efforts of predator extermination, despite a quarter century of recovery efforts. We are the first to provide molecular estimates of effective population size across distinct grey wolf populations in North America, which ranged between Ne ~ 275 and 3050 since early 1980s. We provide data that inform managers regarding the status and importance of effective population size estimates for grey wolf conservation, which are on average 5.2–9.3% of census estimates for this species. We show that while grey wolves fall above minimum effective population sizes needed to avoid extinction due to inbreeding depression in the short term, they are below sizes predicted to be necessary to avoid long-term risk of extinction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere17231
JournalMolecular ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • RADseq
  • conservation
  • effective population size
  • genomics
  • grey wolf


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