Genetic assessment of a bighorn sheep population expansion in the Silver Bell Mountains, Arizona
Background. The isolated population of desert bighorn sheep in the Silver Bell Mountains of southern Arizona underwent an unprecedented expansion in merely four years. We hypothesized that immigration from neighboring bighorn sheep populations could have caused the increase in numbers as detected by Arizona Game and Fish Department annual aerial counts.
Methods. We applied a multilocus genetic approach using mitochondrial DNA and nuclear microsatellite markers for genetic analyses to find evidence of immigration. We sampled the Silver Bell Mountains bighorn sheep before (2003) and during (2015) the population expansion, and a small number of available samples from the Gila Mountains (southwestern Arizona) and the Morenci Mine (Rocky Mountain bighorn) in an attempt to identify the source of putative immigrants and, more importantly, to serve as comparisons for genetic diversity metrics.
Results. We did not find evidence of substantial gene flow into the Silver Bell Mountains population. We did not detect any new mitochondrial haplotypes in the 2015 bighorn sheep samples. The microsatellite analyses detected only one new allele, in one individual from the 2015 population that was not detected in the 2003 samples. Overall, the genetic diversity of the Silver Bell Mountains population was lower than that seen in either the Gila population or the Morenci Mine population.
Discussion. Even though the results of this study did not help elucidate the precise reason for the recent population expansion, continued monitoring and genetic sampling could provide more clarity on the genetic demographics of this population.