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Keywords:

  • contact rates;
  • immunocontraceptive;
  • minisatellite DNA profiling;
  • paternity analysis;
  • sexually transmitted disease;
  • Trichosurus vulpecula

Abstract

Many studies in molecular ecology have focused on the use of repeat DNA markers to determine the nature of mating systems in a wide variety of animal species. Whilst these studies typically have focused on important issues such as the evolutionary consequences of fitness variation among males, genetic studies of mating systems are potentially also important because they can generate information of significance to wider issues in wildlife management. For example, genetically modified, sexually transmitted viral diseases have been suggested as potential agents for the control of vertebrate pest species. An understanding of the epidemiology of such agents requires an intimate knowledge of the sexual contact rates between individuals of the target species. Here, we report the use of minisatellite DNA profiling to reveal the mating system in two New Zealand populations of the introduced Australian brushtail possum. The brushtail possum is New Zealand’s most important mammalian pest and a species for which control by a sexually transmitted immunocontraceptive has been proposed. Encouragingly, we report considerable variation in the reproductive success of males at both study sites, with one male siring offspring from four females in one year (mean no. of offspring/reproductively successful male/year at the two sites is 1.95–2.15), while many sired none. This bias in the pattern of reproductive success among males will probably facilitate the spread of an immunocontraceptive agent and thereby increase the power of this approach to biological control.