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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2022

The relevance of genetic structure in ecotype designation and conservation management

Stronen, Astrid, V; Norman, Anita J.; Vander Wal, Eric; Paquet, Paul C.


The concept of ecotypes is complex, partly because of its interdisciplinary nature, but the idea is intrinsically valuable for evolutionary biology and applied conservation. The complex nature of ecotypes has spurred some confusion and inconsistencies in the literature, thereby limiting broader theoretical development and practical application. We provide suggestions for how incorporating genetic analyses can ease confusion and help define ecotypes. We approach this by systematically reviewing 112 publications across taxa that simultaneously mention the terms ecotype, conservation and management, to examine the current use of the term in the context of conservation and management. We found that most ecotype studies involve fish, mammals and plants with a focus on habitat use, which at 60% was the most common criterion used for categorization of ecotypes. Only 53% of the studies incorporated genetic analyses, and major discrepancies in available genomic resources among taxa could have contributed to confusion about the role of genetic structure in delineating ecotypes. Our results show that the rapid advances in genetic methods, also for nonmodel organisms, can help clarify the spatiotemporal distribution of adaptive and neutral genetic variation and their relevance to ecotype designations. Genetic analyses can offer empirical support for the ecotype concept and provide a timely measure of evolutionary potential, especially in changing environmental conditions. Genetic variation that is often difficult to detect, including polygenic traits influenced by small contributions from several genes, can be vital for adaptation to rapidly changing environments. Emerging ecotypes may signal speciation in progress, and findings from genome-enabled organisms can help clarify important selective factors driving ecotype development and persistence, and thereby improve preservation of interspecific genetic diversity. Incorporation of genetic analyses in ecotype studies will help connect evolutionary biology and applied conservation, including that of problematic groups such as natural hybrid organisms and urban or anthropogenic ecotypes.


adaptive genetic diversity; animal ecology; anthropogenic; conservation priority; environmental selection; phenotype; population genetic structure

Published in

Evolutionary applications
2022, volume: 15, number: 2, pages: 185-202
Publisher: WILEY

Authors' information

Stronen, Astrid
University of Insubria
Stronen, Astrid
University of Ljubljana
Stronen, Astrid
Aalborg University
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies
Vander Wal, Eric
Memorial University Newfoundland
Paquet, Paul C.
University of Victoria

UKÄ Subject classification

Evolutionary Biology

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