Large-Scale Natural Disturbance Alters Genetic Population Structure of the Sailfin Molly, Poecilia latipinna

Joseph J. Apodaca, Joel C. Trexler, Nathaniel K. Jue, Matthew Schrader, Joseph Travis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many inferences about contemporary rates of gene flow are based on the assumption that the observed genetic structure among populations is stable. Recent studies have uncovered several cases in which this assumption is tenuous. Most of those studies have focused on the effects that regular environmental fluctuations can have on genetic structure and gene flow patterns. Occasional catastrophic disturbances could also alter either the distribution of habitat or the spatial distribution of organisms in a way that affects population structure. However, evidence of such effects is sparse in the literature because it is difficult to obtain. Hurricanes, in particular, have the potential to exert dramatic effects on population structure of organisms found on islands or coral reefs or in near shore and coastal habitats. Here we draw on a historic genetic data set and new data to suggest that the genetic structure of sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna) populations in north Florida was altered dramatically by an unusually large and uncommon type of storm surge associated with Hurricane Dennis in 2005. We compare the spatial pattern of genetic variation in these populations after Hurricane Dennis to the patterns described in an earlier study in this same area. We use comparable genetic data from another region of Florida, collected in the same two periods, to estimate the amount of change expected from typical temporal variation in population structure. The comparative natural history of sailfin mollies in these two regions indicates that the change in population structure produced by the storm surge is not the result of many local extinctions with recolonization from a few refugia but emerged from a pattern of mixing and redistribution.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalThe American Naturalist
StatePublished - Feb 2013


  • genetic structure
  • hurricanes
  • natural disasters
  • sailfin mollies


  • Biology
  • Aquaculture and Fisheries

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