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Keywords:

  • Bayesian analysis;
  • DQA;
  • DRB;
  • Lepus europaeus;
  • MHC variation;
  • reproductive success;
  • zero-inflated Poisson regression model

Abstract

The link between adaptive genetic variation, individual fitness and wildlife population dynamics is fundamental to the study of ecology and evolutionary biology. In this study, a Bayesian modelling approach was employed to examine whether individual variability at two major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II loci (DQA and DRB) and eight neutral microsatellite loci explained variation in female reproductive success for wild populations of European brown hare (Lepus europaeus). We examined two aspects of reproduction: the ability to reproduce (sterility) and the number of offspring produced (fecundity). Samples were collected from eastern Austria, experiencing a sub-continental climatic regime, and from Belgium with a more Atlantic-influenced climate. As expected, reproductive success (both sterility and fecundity) was significantly influenced by age regardless of sampling locality. For Belgium, there was also a significant effect of DQA heterozygosity in determining whether females were able to reproduce (95% highest posterior density interval of the regression parameter [−3.64, −0.52]), but no corresponding effect was found for Austria. In neither region was reproduction significantly associated with heterozygosity at the DRB locus. DQA heterozygotes from both regions also showed a clear tendency, but not significantly so, to produce a larger number of offspring. Predictive simulations showed that, in Belgium, sub-populations of homozygotes will have higher rates of sterile individuals and lower average offspring numbers than heterozygotes. No similar effect is predicted for Austria. The mechanism for the spatial MHC effect is likely to be connected to mate choice for increased heterozygosity or to the linkage of certain MHC alleles with lethal recessives at other loci.