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Unanticipated population structure of European grayling in its northern distribution: implications for conservation prioritization

Akarapong Swatdipong1*, Anti Vasemägi1, Mikko T Koskinen2, Jorma Piironen3 and Craig R Primmer1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Turku, Turku, Finland

2 Finnzymes Diagnostics, Espoo, Finland

3 Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute, Joensuu, Finland

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Frontiers in Zoology 2009, 6:6  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-6-6

Published: 30 March 2009



The European grayling (Thymallus thymallus) is a salmonid fish native to Europe, with a distribution ranging from England and France to the Ural Mountains of north-western Russia. The majority of grayling populations inhabit freshwater rivers and lakes but some populations also occupy brackish water in northern parts of the Baltic Sea. Previous population genetic studies have demonstrated that grayling populations in Finland, Estonia and Russia belong to a single mitochondrial lineage and exhibit high levels of differentiation even at a small geographic scale. As a result, we predicted that grayling populations should not cluster regionally. Despite the extensive amount of genetic research that has been carried out on grayling, comprehensive national-level information on population structure of grayling in Northern Europe is still lacking. Yet this is the level at which populations are currently managed.


We found unanticipated population structure of grayling clustering into three groups largely corresponding to the northern, Baltic and south-eastern geographic areas of Finland using 13 microsatellite loci. We also found a high level of genetic differentiation among the groups and moderate to high differentiation within the groups. This combined with low variability strongly indicates that genetic drift and limited migration have a major impact on grayling population structure. An allele size permutation test indicated that mutations at microsatellite loci have not significantly contributed to genetic differentiation among the three Finnish groups. However, at the European scale, mutations had significantly contributed to population differentiation.


This research provides novel genetic information on European grayling in its northern distribution range and has clear implications for supporting country-scale conservation efforts. Specifically, the strong between population divergence observed indicates that single populations should generally be recognized as separate management units. We also introduced an alternative prioritization strategy for population conservation based on the evaluation of the relative roles of different evolutionary forces shaping the gene pools. We envision that the proposed approach to categorize populations for conservation will be a useful tool for wildlife researchers and conservationists working on a diverse range of organisms.