The maintenance of both spatial and genetic connectivity is paramount to the long-term persistence of small, isolated populations living in environments with extreme climates. We aim to identify the distribution of genetic diversity and assess population sub-structuring and dispersal across dwarfed desert populations of Crocodylus suchus, which occur in isolated groups, usually less than five individuals, along the mountains of Mauritania (West Africa). We used both invasive and non-invasive sampling methods and a combination of mitochondrial DNA (12 S and ND4) and microsatellite markers (32 loci and a subset of 12 loci). Our results showed high genetic differentiation and geographic structure in Mauritanian populations of C. suchus. We identified a metapopulation system acting within four river sub-basins (high gene flow and absence of genetic structure) and considerable genetic differentiation between sub-basins (FST range: 0.12–0.24) with rare dispersal events. Effective population sizes tend to be low within sub-basins while genetic diversity is maintained. Our study suggests that hydrographic networks (temporal connections along seasonal rivers during rainy periods) allow C. suchus to disperse and maintain metapopulation dynamics within sub-basins, which attenuate the loss of genetic diversity and the risk of extinction. We highlight the need of hydrographic conservation to protect vulnerable crocodiles isolated in small water bodies. We propose C. suchus as an umbrella species in Mauritania based on ecological affinities shared with other water-dependent species in desert environments.
Journal: PLOS One