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Keywords:

  • bottleneck;
  • extinction;
  • environmental stochasticity;
  • genetic diversity;
  • inbreeding–stress interaction;
  • population viability

Abstract

Numerous recent papers have demonstrated a central role for genetic factors in the extinction process or have documented the importance of gene flow in reversing population declines. This prompted one recent publication to declare that a revolution in conservation genetics has occurred. Contemporaneously with this revolution are a series of papers demonstrating long-term population persistence for several species despite having little or no detectable genetic variation. In a couple of notable cases, populations have been shown to have survived for centuries at small population size and with depleted levels of genetic variation. These contradictory results demand an explanation. In this review, I will show that these results do not necessarily fly in the face of theory as sometimes stated. The reconciliation of these two sets of observations relies on the incorporation of two major concepts. (1) Genetic factors do not act in a vacuum and it is their interaction with the environment, the strength and type of selection imposed, and the life history of the organism that determine the relative importance of genetic factors to extinction risk. (2) The relationship between molecular estimates of genetic variation and evolutionary potential, the relevance of genetic bottlenecks to adaptive genetic variation, and the nature of the stochastic process of extinction must be better integrated into expectations of population viability. Reports of populations persisting for hundreds of generations with very little detectable genetic variation provide us not only with valuable information but also with hope. However, recent studies suggest that we should not be sanguine about the importance of genetic diversity in the conservation of biodiversity.