1 Computational and RNA Biology, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Københavns Universitet2 Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência3 Computational and RNA Biology, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Københavns Universitet
Many coalescent-based methods aiming to infer the demographic history of populations assume a single, isolated and panmictic population (i.e. a Wright-Fisher model). While this assumption may be reasonable under many conditions, several recent studies have shown that the results can be misleading when it is violated. Among the most widely applied demographic inference methods are Bayesian skyline plots (BSPs), which are used across a range of biological fields. Violations of the panmixia assumption are to be expected in many biological systems, but the consequences for skyline plot inferences have so far not been addressed and quantified. We simulated DNA sequence data under a variety of scenarios involving structured populations with variable levels of gene flow and analysed them using BSPs as implemented in the software package BEAST. Results revealed that BSPs can show false signals of population decline under biologically plausible combinations of population structure and sampling strategy, suggesting that the interpretation of several previous studies may need to be re-evaluated. We found that a balanced sampling strategy whereby samples are distributed on several populations provides the best scheme for inferring demographic change over a typical time scale. Analyses of data from a structured African buffalo population demonstrate how BSP results can be strengthened by simulations. We recommend that sample selection should be carefully considered in relation to population structure previous to BSP analyses, and that alternative scenarios should be evaluated when interpreting signals of population size change.