Background: Oceans are high gene flow environments that are traditionally believed to hamper the build-up of genetic divergence. Despite this, divergence appears to occur occasionally at surprisingly small scales. The Galápagos archipelago provides an ideal opportunity to examine the evolutionary processes of local divergence in an isolated marine environment. Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) are top predators in this unique setting and have an essentially unlimited dispersal capacity across the entire species range. In theory, this should oppose any genetic differentiation. Results: We find significant ecological, morphological and genetic divergence between the western colonies and colonies from the central region of the archipelago that are exposed to different ecological conditions. Stable isotope analyses indicate that western animals use different food sources than those from the central area. This is likely due to niche partitioning with the second Galápagos eared seal species, the Galápagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) that exclusively dwells in the west. Stable isotope patterns correlate with significant differences in foraging-related skull morphology. Analyses of mitochondrial sequences as well as microsatellites reveal signs of initial genetic differentiation. Conclusion: Our results suggest a key role of intra- as well as inter-specific niche segregation in the evolution of genetic structure among populations of a highly mobile species under conditions of free movement. Given the monophyletic arrival of the sea lions on the archipelago, our study challenges the view that geographical barriers are strictly needed for the build-up of genetic divergence. The study further raises the interesting prospect that in social, colonially breeding mammals additional forces, such as social structure or feeding traditions, might bear on the genetic partitioning of populations.
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