Title: Large-scale and fine-grain population structure and genetic diversity of snow leopards (Panthera uncia Schreber, 1776) from the northern and western parts of the range with an emphasis on the Russian population.
Abstract: The snow leopard (Panthera uncia Schreber, 1776) population in Russia and Mongolia is situated at the northern edge of the range, where instability of ecological conditions and of prey availability may serve as prerequisites for demographic instability and, consequently, for reducing the genetic diversity. Moreover, this northern area of the species distribution is connected with the western and central parts by only a few small fragments of potential habitats in the Tian-Shan spurs in China and Kazakhstan. Given this structure of the range, the restriction of gene flow between the northern and other regions of snow leopard distribution can be expected. Under these conditions, data on population genetics would be extremely important for assessment of genetic diversity, population structure and gene flow both at regional and large-scale level. To investigate large-scale and fine-grain population structure and levels of genetic diversity we analyzed 108 snow leopards identified from noninvasively collected scat samples from Russia and Mongolia (the northern part of the range) as well as from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (the western part of the range) using panel of eight polymorphic microsatellites. We found low to moderate levels of genetic diversity in the studied populations. Among local habitats, the highest heterozygosity and allelic richness were recorded in Kyrgyzstan (He = 0.66 ± 0.03, Ho = 0.70 ± 0.04, Ar = 3.17) whereas the lowest diversity was found in a periphery subpopulation in Buryatia Republic of Russia (He = 0.41 ± 0.12, Ho = 0.29 ± 0.05, Ar = 2.33). In general, snow leopards from the western range exhibit greater genetic diversity (He = 0.68 ± 0.04, Ho = 0.66 ± 0.03, Ar = 4.95) compared to those from the northern range (He = 0.60 ± 0.06, Ho = 0.49 ± 0.02, Ar = 4.45). In addition, we have identified signs of fragmentation in the northern habitat, which have led to significant genetic divergence between subpopulations in Russia. Multiple analyses of genetic structure support considerable genetic differentiation between the northern and western range parts, which may testify to subspecies subdivision of snow leopards from these regions. The observed patterns of genetic structure are evidence for delineation of several management units within the studied populations, requiring individual approaches for conservation initiatives, particularly related to translocation events. The causes for the revealed patterns of genetic structure and levels of genetic diversity are discussed.