Beatty WS, Lemons PR, Sethi SA, Everett J, Lewis CJ, Lynn RJ, Cook GM, Garlich-Miller JL, Wenburg JK. (2020) Panmixia in a sea ice-associated marine mammal: evaluating genetic structure of the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) at multiple spatial scales. Journal of Mammalogy 101:755-765.
The kin structure of a species at relatively fine spatial scales impacts broad-scale patterns in genetic structure at the population level. However, kin structure rarely has been elucidated for migratory marine mammals. The Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) exhibits migratory behavior linked to seasonal patterns in sea ice dynamics. Consequently, information on the spatial genetic structure of the subspecies, including kin structure, could aid wildlife managers in designing future studies to evaluate the impacts of sea ice loss on the subspecies. We sampled 8,303 individual walruses over a 5-year period and used 114 single-nucleotide polymorphisms to examine both broad-scale patterns in genetic structure and fine-scale patterns in relatedness. We did not detect any evidence of genetic structure at broad spatial scales, with low FST values (≤ 0.001) across all pairs of putative aggregations. To evaluate kin structure at fine spatial scales, we defined a walrus group as a cluster of resting individuals that were less than one walrus body length apart. We found weak evidence of kin structure at fine spatial scales, with 3.72% of groups exhibiting mean relatedness values greater than expected by chance, and a significantly higher overall observed mean value of relatedness within groups than expected by chance. Thus, the high spatiotemporal variation in the distribution of resources in the Pacific Arctic environment likely has favored a gregarious social system in Pacific walruses, with unrelated animals forming temporary associations.