The elusive American pine marten, a little-studied member of the weasel family, might be more diverse than originally thought, according to new research published by a University of Montana professor.
Natalie Dawson is a lead author on the study, which suggests that the forests of northwest North America may harbor two distinct marten species. The research, published in the Journal of Mammology, also indicates the presence of hybrid marten populations in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, where the two species converge.
Dawson’s work builds on previous research conducted in the 1950s by late UM professor Philip Wright. Dawson examined hundreds of DNA samples to differentiate between the separate populations. She said her findings are exciting because hybridization between mammal species remains relatively unknown, especially in natural ecosystems.
“This is one of the few cases where there has been long-term hybridization between species that still maintain their distinctiveness in their respective localities,” she explained. “This research also illustrates the importance of historical climate change as a driver for biological diversity in the mountains and landscapes of Montana, as well as throughout the rest of North America.”
Dawson is continuing her research by examining historical pine marten skulls in hopes of understanding the morphological characteristic differences between the two species.