Genetics, taxonomy, and conservation of the threatened California Gnatcatcher

Robert M. Zink, George F. Barrowclough, Jonathan L. Atwood, Rachelle C. Blackwell-Rago

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


The California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) has become a flagship species in the dispute over development of southern California's unique coastal sage scrub habitat, a fragile, geographically restricted ecosystem with high endemism. One aspect of the controversy concerns the status of the subspecies of this bird in southern California coastal sage scrub that is currently listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. To investigate the recent population history of this species and the genetic distinctiveness of subspecies and to inform conservation planning, we used direct sequencing of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) for 64 individuals from 13 samples taken throughout the species' range. We found that coastal sage scrub populations of California Gnatcatchers are not genetically distinct from populations in Baja California, which are dense and continuously distributed throughout the peninsula. Rather, mtDNA sequences from this species contain the signatures of population growth and support a hypothesis of recent expansion of populations from a southern Baja California refugium northward into the southern coastal regions of California. During this expansion, stochastic events led to a reduction in genetic variation in the newly occupied range. Thus, preservation of coastal sage scrub cannot be linked to maintaining the genetic diversity of northern gnatcatcher populations, despite previous recognition of subspecies. Our study suggests that not all currently recognized subspecies are equivalent to evolutionarily significant units and illustrates the danger of focusing conservation efforts for threatened habitats on a single species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1394-1405
Number of pages12
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 26 2000

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