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Abstract

Between 1990 and 1992, Mediterranean striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) suffered high mortality due to a morbillivirus epidemic. Ten highly variable microsatellite markers were used to assess the population structure of a sample of these stranded animals and to assess the genetic consequences of the epizootic on present stocks. We found little evidence of population structure within the Mediterranean, but distinct separation between this and the North Sea (Atlantic) population, the latter also showing greater genetic diversity. Using a genetic measure of inbreeding, we found that dolphins dying early in the outbreak were significantly more inbred than those dying later. Within 10 years of the end of the epidemic, the level of inbreeding among stranded dolphins had returned to its pre-outbreak levels. However, on average all stranded animals showed elevated levels of inbreeding, suggesting that animals dying from disease may venture towards the shore more than those dying of old age. Our results imply an important role for inbreeding in the dynamics of disease spread and that, in marine mammal research, caution should be exercised when inferring demographic parameters from stranded specimens.