US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Conservation Genetics (2004)5: 683–705.


Hierarchical genetic structure was examined in the three geographically-defined subspecies of spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) to define relationships among subspecies and quantify variation within and among regional and local populations. Sequences (522 bp) from domains I and II of the mitochondrial control region were analyzed for 213 individuals from 30 local breeding areas. Results confirmed significant differences between northern spotted owls and the other traditional geographically defined subspecies but did not provide support for subspecific level differences between California and Mexican spotted owls. Divergence times among subspecies estimated with a 936 bp portion of the cytochrome b gene dated Northern and California/Mexican spotted owl divergence time to 115,000–125,000 years ago, whereas California/Mexican spotted owl divergence was estimated at 15,000 years ago. Nested clade analyses indicated an association between California spotted owl and Mexican spotted owl haplotypes, implying historical contact between the two groups. Results also identified a number of individuals geographically classified as northern spotted owls (S. o. caurina) that contained haplotypes identified as California spotted owls (S. o. occidentalis). Among all northern spotted owls sampled (n = 131), 12.9% contained California spotted owl haplotypes. In the Klamath region, which is the contact zone between the two subspecies, 20.3% (n = 59) of owls were classified as California spotted owls. The Klamath region is a zone of hybridization and speciation for many other taxa as well. Analyses of population structure indicated gene flow among regions within geographically defined subspecies although there was significant differentiation among northern and southern regions of Mexican spotted owls. Among all areas examined, genetic diversity was not significantly reduced except in California spotted owls where the southern region consists of one haplotype. Our results indicate a stable contact zone between northern and California spotted owls, maintaining distinct subspecific haplotypes within their traditional ranges. This supports recovery efforts based on the traditional subspecies designation for the northern spotted owl. Further, although little variation was found between California and Mexican spotted owls, we suggest they should be managed separately because of current isolation between groups.