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The imprecision of heterozygosity-fitness correlations hinders the detection of inbreeding and inbreeding depression in a threatened species


Ian G. Jamieson, Fax: 64 3 479 7584; E-mail:


In nonpedigreed wild populations, inbreeding depression is often quantified through the use of heterozygosity-fitness correlations (HFCs), based on molecular estimates of relatedness. Although such correlations are typically interpreted as evidence of inbreeding depression, by assuming that the marker heterozygosity is a proxy for genome-wide heterozygosity, theory predicts that these relationships should be difficult to detect. Until now, the vast majority of empirical research in this area has been performed on generally outbred, nonbottlenecked populations, but differences in population genetic processes may limit extrapolation of results to threatened populations. Here, we present an analysis of HFCs, and their implications for the interpretation of inbreeding, in a free-ranging pedigreed population of a bottlenecked species: the endangered takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri). Pedigree-based inbreeding depression has already been detected in this species. Using 23 microsatellite loci, we observed only weak evidence of the expected relationship between multilocus heterozygosity and fitness at individual life-history stages (such as survival to hatching and fledging), and parameter estimates were imprecise (had high error). Furthermore, our molecular data set could not accurately predict the inbreeding status of individuals (as ‘inbred’ or ‘outbred’, determined from pedigrees), nor could we show that the observed HFCs were the result of genome-wide identity disequilibrium. These results may be attributed to high variance in heterozygosity within inbreeding classes. This study is an empirical example from a free-ranging endangered species, suggesting that even relatively large numbers (>20) of microsatellites may give poor precision for estimating individual genome-wide heterozygosity. We argue that pedigree methods remain the most effective method of quantifying inbreeding in wild populations, particularly those that have gone through severe bottlenecks.