Background: Historical factors, demography, reproduction and dispersal are crucial in determining the genetic structure of seabirds. In the Antarctic marine environment, penguins are a major component of the avian biomass, dominant predators and important bioindicators of ecological change. Populations of chinstrap penguins have decreased in nearly all their breeding sites, and their range is expanding throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. Population genetic structure of this species has been studied in some colonies, but not between breeding colonies in the Antarctic Peninsula or at the species' easternmost breeding colony (Bouvetøya).
Results: Connectivity, sex-biased dispersal, diversity, genetic structure and demographic history were studied using 12 microsatellite loci and a mitochondrial DNA region (HVRI) in 12 breeding colonies in the South Shetland Islands (SSI) and the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), and one previously unstudied sub-Antarctic island, 3600 km away from the WAP (Bouvetøya). High genetic diversity, evidence of female bias-dispersal and a sign of population expansion after the last glacial maximum around 10,000 mya were detected. Limited population genetic structure and lack of isolation by distance throughout the region were found, along with no differentiation between the WAP and Bouvetøya (overall microsatellite F ST = 0.002, p = 0.273; mtDNA F ST = - 0.004, p = 0.766), indicating long distance dispersal. Therefore, genetic assignment tests could not assign individuals to their population(s) of origin. The most differentiated location was Georges Point, one of the southernmost breeding colonies of this species in the WAP.
Conclusions: The subtle differentiation found may be explained by some combination of low natal philopatric behavior, high rates of dispersal and/or generally high mobility among colonies of chinstrap penguins compared to other Pygoscelis species.
Keywords: Antarctica; D-loop; Dispersal; Gene flow; Microsatellites; Pygoscelis antarcticus; Seabirds; Sex-biased.