Small populations can provide insights into ecological and evolutionary aspects of species distributions over space and time. In the Wood River system in Alaska, USA, small aggregates of Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and chum salmon (O. keta) spawn in an area dominated by sockeye salmon (O. nerka). Our objective was to determine whether these Chinook and chum salmon are reproductively isolated, self-sustaining populations, population sinks that produce returning adults but receive immigration, or strays from other systems that do not produce returning adults. DNA samples collected from adult chum salmon from 16 streams and Chinook salmon from four streams in the Wood River system over 3 years were compared to samples from large populations in the nearby Nushagak River system, a likely source of strays. For both species, microsatellite markers indicated no significant genetic differentiation between the two systems. Simulations of microsatellite data in a large source and a smaller sink population suggested that considerable immigration would be required to counteract the diverging effects of genetic drift and produce genetic distances as small as those observed, considering the small census sizes of the two species in the Wood River system. Thus, the Wood River system likely receives substantial immigration from neighbouring watersheds, such as the Nushagak River system, which supports highly productive runs. Although no data on population productivity in the Wood River system exist, our results suggest source-sink dynamics for the two species, a finding relevant to other systems where salmonid population sizes are limited by habitat factors.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.