Major histocompatibility complex variation in insular populations of the Egyptian vulture: inferences about the roles of genetic drift and selection


Rosa Agudo, Fax: +34 954 62 11 25; E-mail:


Insular populations have attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists because of their morphological and ecological peculiarities with respect to their mainland counterparts. Founder effects and genetic drift are known to distribute neutral genetic variability in these demes. However, elucidating whether these evolutionary forces have also shaped adaptive variation is crucial to evaluate the real impact of reduced genetic variation in small populations. Genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are classical examples of evolutionarily relevant loci because of their well-known role in pathogen confrontation and clearance. In this study, we aim to disentangle the partial roles of genetic drift and natural selection in the spatial distribution of MHC variation in insular populations. To this end, we integrate the study of neutral (22 microsatellites and one mtDNA locus) and MHC class II variation in one mainland (Iberia) and two insular populations (Fuerteventura and Menorca) of the endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Overall, the distribution of the frequencies of individual MHC alleles (n = 17 alleles from two class II B loci) does not significantly depart from neutral expectations, which indicates a prominent role for genetic drift over selection. However, our results point towards an interesting co-evolution of gene duplicates that maintains different pairs of divergent alleles in strong linkage disequilibrium on islands. We hypothesize that the co-evolution of genes may counteract the loss of genetic diversity in insular demes, maximize antigen recognition capabilities when gene diversity is reduced, and promote the co-segregation of the most efficient allele combinations to cope with local pathogen communities.