Where east meets west: Phylogeography of the high Arctic North American brant goose

Robert E. Wilson*, Sean Boyd, Sarah A. Sonsthagen, David H. Ward, Preben Clausen, Kathryn M. Dickson, Barwolt S. Ebbinge, Gudmundur A. Gudmundsson, George K. Sage, Jolene R. Rearick, Dirk V. Derksen, Sandra L. Talbot

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Genetic variation in Arctic species is often influenced by vicariance during the Pleistocene, as ice sheets fragmented the landscape and displaced populations to low- and high-latitude refugia. The formation of secondary contact or suture zones during periods of ice sheet retraction has important consequences on genetic diversity by facilitating genetic connectivity between formerly isolated populations. Brant geese (Branta bernicla) are a maritime migratory waterfowl (Anseriformes) species that almost exclusively uses coastal habitats. Within North America, brant geese are characterized by two phenotypically distinct subspecies that utilize disjunct breeding and wintering areas in the northern Pacific and Atlantic. In the Western High Arctic of Canada, brant geese consist of individuals with an intermediate phenotype that are rarely observed nesting outside this region. We examined the genetic structure of brant geese populations from each subspecies and areas consisting of intermediate phenotypes using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region sequence data and microsatellite loci. We found a strong east–west partition in both marker types consistent with refugial populations. Within subspecies, structure was also observed at mtDNA while microsatellite data suggested the presence of only two distinct genetic clusters. The Western High Arctic (WHA) appears to be a secondary contact zone for both Atlantic and Pacific lineages as mtDNA and nuclear genotypes were assigned to both subspecies, and admixed individuals were observed in this region. The mtDNA sequence data outside WHA suggests no or very restricted intermixing between Atlantic and Pacific wintering populations which is consistent with published banding and telemetry data. Our study indicates that, although brant geese in the WHA are not a genetically distinct lineage, this region may act as a reservoir of genetic diversity and may be an area of high conservation value given the potential of low reproductive output in this species.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11245
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


  • brant geese
  • Branta bernicla
  • contact zones
  • genetic structure
  • refugia


Dive into the research topics of 'Where east meets west: Phylogeography of the high Arctic North American brant goose'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this