Open Access Research article

Single nucleotide polymorphisms unravel hierarchical divergence and signatures of selection among Alaskan sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) populations

Daniel Gomez-Uchida1*, James E Seeb1, Matt J Smith12, Christopher Habicht3, Thomas P Quinn1 and Lisa W Seeb1

  • * Corresponding author: Daniel Gomez-Uchida

Author Affiliations

1 School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, 1122 Boat St NE Box 355020 Seattle, WA 98195-5020, USA

2 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Abernathy Fish Technology Center, 1440 Abernathy Creek Road, Longview, WA 98632, USA

3 Division of Commercial Fisheries, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 333 Raspberry Road, Anchorage, AK 99518, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:48  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-48

Published: 18 February 2011



Disentangling the roles of geography and ecology driving population divergence and distinguishing adaptive from neutral evolution at the molecular level have been common goals among evolutionary and conservation biologists. Using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) multilocus genotypes for 31 sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) populations from the Kvichak River, Alaska, we assessed the relative roles of geography (discrete boundaries or continuous distance) and ecology (spawning habitat and timing) driving genetic divergence in this species at varying spatial scales within the drainage. We also evaluated two outlier detection methods to characterize candidate SNPs responding to environmental selection, emphasizing which mechanism(s) may maintain the genetic variation of outlier loci.


For the entire drainage, Mantel tests suggested a greater role of geographic distance on population divergence than differences in spawn timing when each variable was correlated with pairwise genetic distances. Clustering and hierarchical analyses of molecular variance indicated that the largest genetic differentiation occurred between populations from distinct lakes or subdrainages. Within one population-rich lake, however, Mantel tests suggested a greater role of spawn timing than geographic distance on population divergence when each variable was correlated with pairwise genetic distances. Variable spawn timing among populations was linked to specific spawning habitats as revealed by principal coordinate analyses. We additionally identified two outlier SNPs located in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II that appeared robust to violations of demographic assumptions from an initial pool of eight candidates for selection.


First, our results suggest that geography and ecology have influenced genetic divergence between Alaskan sockeye salmon populations in a hierarchical manner depending on the spatial scale. Second, we found consistent evidence for diversifying selection in two loci located in the MHC class II by means of outlier detection methods; yet, alternative scenarios for the evolution of these loci were also evaluated. Both conclusions argue that historical contingency and contemporary adaptation have likely driven differentiation between Kvichak River sockeye salmon populations, as revealed by a suite of SNPs. Our findings highlight the need for conservation of complex population structure, because it provides resilience in the face of environmental change, both natural and anthropogenic.