Confidently identifying the correct K value using the ΔK method: When does K = 2?

Catherine I. Cullingham, Joshua M. Miller, Rhiannon M. Peery, Julian R. Dupuis, René M. Malenfant, Jamieson C. Gorrell, Jasmine K. Janes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Populations delineated based on genetic data are commonly used for wildlife conservation and management. Many studies use the program structure combined with the ΔK method to identify the most probable number of populations (K). We recently found K = 2 was identified more often when studies used ΔK compared to studies that did not. We suggested two reasons for this: hierarchical population structure leads to underestimation, or the ΔK method does not evaluate K = 1 causing an overestimation. The present contribution aims to develop a better understanding of the limits of the method using one, two and three population simulations across migration scenarios. From these simulations we identified the “best K” using model likelihood and ΔK. Our findings show that mean probability plots and ΔK are unable to resolve the correct number of populations once migration rate exceeds 0.005. We also found a strong bias towards selecting K = 2 using the ΔK method. We used these data to identify the range of values where the ΔK statistic identifies a value of K that is not well supported. Finally, using the simulations and a review of empirical data, we found that the magnitude of ΔK corresponds to the level of divergence between populations. Based on our findings, we suggest researchers should use the ΔK method cautiously; they need to report all relevant data, including the magnitude of ΔK, and an estimate of connectivity for the research community to assess whether meaningful genetic structure exists within the context of management and conservation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)862-869
Number of pages8
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • F
  • genetic structure
  • migration rate
  • population structure
  • ΔK

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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