Infectious diseases and their demographic consequences are thought to influence the genetic diversity of populations. In Europe, during the last 50 years, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) has suffered two important viral epizootics: myxomatosis and rabbit viral haemorraghic disease (RVHD). Although mortality rates were very high, the impact of these diseases on genetic diversity has never been assessed directly. The subject of this paper is a wild rabbit population in France, which has been studied since the beginning of the 1980s. The first outbreak of RVHD occurred in 1995 and provoked a demographic crash. The population, sampled for the first time in 1982 and 1994, was sampled again at the end of 1996 to examine the impact of the epizootic on genetic diversity. In spite of the observed high mortality rate (≈ 90%), analysis of 14 polymorphic loci (allozymes and microsatellites) showed no loss in genetic diversity after the epizootic. Determination of temporal changes in allele frequencies indicated that the population evolved under genetic drift. The temporal method of Waples demonstrated a significant decrease in the effective population size (Ne) correlated with the demographic crash due to the epizootic. However, the population had only been studied for two generations after the epizootic and the remnant population size probably stayed high enough (≈ 50 individuals) to keep its genetic diversity at the precrash level. These results suggest that, contrary to what is usually thought and in spite of the subsequent high mortality rates, past epizootics (especially myxomatosis) may have had little effect on the genetic diversity of wild rabbit populations in Europe.
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