A pair of new studies from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Idaho State University, and the University of Nevada Reno look at the surprising variety of factors that prevent two closely related species of woodrats from becoming a single hybrid species despite the existence of hybrid individuals where the two species come into contact.
After finding that two closely related species, the desert and Bryant's woodrats, could interbreed and produce hybrid offspring, scientists set out to determine why only 14 percent of the population in a "contact zone" had genetic signatures from both species. (If the two species were similar enough to interbreed, what was keeping them from merging into a single hybrid species?)
In the study, "Ecological segregation in a small mammal hybrid zone: Habitat-specific mating opportunities and selection against hybrids restrict gene flow on a fine spatial scale," which appears in the March print edition of the journal Evolution, the authors discuss the factors driving these mating dynamics in a hybrid zone in southern California.
Trapping and handling hundreds of woodrats (also known as packrats), the scientists found that the two species are highly associated with different habitat types, though they may live within meters of each other along the boundary. Their research showed that 98 percent of Bryant's woodrats occupied a boulder-strewn hillside comprised of coastal / Sierra vegetation, while 93 percent of the desert woodrats occupied the adjacent valley floor consisting of Mojave desert scrub and a sandy substrate. This, in spite of the fact that both habitats were theoretically available to both species.
"Mating opportunities between species are limited because the two species make their homes and forage in very distinct habitats, even though those habitats are right next to each other," said lead author of both studies, Quinn Shurtliff of the Wildlife Conservation Society and
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Wildlife Conservation Society