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Keywords:

  • conservation genetics;
  • founder population;
  • heterozygosity;
  • reintroduction;
  • reproductive skew;
  • tuatara

Founder populations in reintroduction programmes can experience a genetic bottleneck simply because of their small size. The influence of reproductive skew brought on by polygynous or polyandrous mating systems in these populations can exacerbate already difficult conservation genetic problems, such as inbreeding depression and loss of adaptive potential. Without an understanding of reproductive skew in a target species, and the effect it can have on genetic diversity retained over generations, long-term conservation goals will be compromised. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Miller et al. (2009a) test how founder group size and variance in male reproductive success influence the maintenance of genetic diversity following reintroduction on a long-term scale. They evaluated genetic diversity in two wild populations of the iconic New Zealand tuatara (Fig. 1), which differ greatly in population size and genetic diversity, and compared this to genetic diversity in multiple founder populations sourced from both populations. Population viability analysis on the maintenance of genetic diversity over 400 years (10 generations) demonstrated that while the loss of heterozygosity was low when compared with both source populations (1–14%), the greater the male reproductive skew, the greater the predicted losses of genetic diversity. Importantly however, the loss of genetic diversity was ameliorated after population size exceeded 250 animals, regardless of the level of reproductive skew. This study demonstrates that highly informed conservation decisions could be made when you build on a solid foundation of demographic, natural history and behavioural ecology data. These data, when informed by modern population and genetic analysis, mean that fundamental applied conservation questions (how many animals should make up a founder population?) can be answered accurately and with an eye to the long-term consequences of management decisions.

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Figure 1.  Large adult male tuatara attacking a smaller male. Photo by Jeanine Refsnider.

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