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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Two behavioural traits promote fine-scale species segregation and moderate hybridisation in a recovering sympatric fur seal population

Melanie L Lancaster12*, Simon D Goldsworthy13 and Paul Sunnucks14

Author Affiliations

1 Zoology Department, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria 3083, Australia

2 School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia

3 South Australian Research and Development Institute, South Australia 5024, Australia

4 School of Biological Sciences and Australian Centre for Biodiversity, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3800, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:143  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-143

Published: 14 May 2010



In systems where two or more species experience secondary contact, behavioural factors that regulate interspecific gene flow may be important for maintaining species boundaries and reducing the incidence of hybridisation. At subantarctic Macquarie Island, two species of fur seal breed in close proximity to one another, hybridise at very high levels (up to 21% of hybrid pups are born annually), yet retain discrete gene pools. Using spatial and genetic information collected for pups and adults over twelve years, we assessed two behavioural traits - inter-annual site fidelity and differences in habitat use between the species - as possible contributors to the maintenance of this species segregation. Further, we explored the breakdown of these traits in pure-species individuals and hybrids.


We found virtually complete spatial segregation of the parental species, with only one exception; a single territory that contained adults of both species and also the highest concentration of hybrid pups. The spatial distribution of each species was closely linked to habitat type (pebbled vs boulder beaches), with members of each species breeding almost exclusively on one type or the other but hybrids breeding on both or at the junction between habitats. Inter-annual site fidelity was high for both sexes of pure-species adults, with 66% of females and all males returning to the same territory or a neighbouring one in different years. An important consequence for pure females of breeding on the 'wrong' habitat type, and thus in a heterospecific aggregation, was the production of hybrid pups. Low habitat fidelity of hybrid females facilitated bi-directional backcrossing, resulting in more diverse hybrid offspring.


In a disturbed system where two sympatric fur seal species breed in close proximity, discrete gene pools are retained by extremely fine-scale and strong spatial segregation of the species. Two behavioural traits were found to be important in maintaining this stable population structure, and habitat type was a strong indicator of where species locate and a potentially powerful predictor of future directions of hybridisation. A direct consequence of the breakdown of this trait was the production of hybrid offspring, which may have severe implications if hybrids have reduced fitness.