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Keywords:

  • conservation genetics;
  • endangered species;
  • founder effects;
  • population bottlenecks;
  • population genetics;
  • species restoration

Abstract

In restoring species, reasons for introducing limited numbers of individuals at different locations include costs of introduction and maintenance, limited founder supply, and risk “bet hedging.” However, populations initiated from few founders may experience increased genetic drift, inbreeding, and diversity loss. We examined the genetic diversity of an isolated stand of more than 5,000 American chestnut trees relative to that of the 9 surviving stand founders (out of 10 total) planted in the 1880s. We used minisatellite DNA probes to reveal 84 genetic markers (circa 24 loci) among the nine founders, and their genetic diversity was compared with three separate plots of descendant trees, as well as with two natural stands. The descendants were circa 7.3% more heterozygous than the founders (mean estimated H= 0.556 vs. 0.518, respectively; p < 0.0001). Genetic differentiation was not pronounced (FST < 0.031), and no markers, including those at low frequency among the founders, were lost in the descendants. The founders and natural transects were not significantly different in H or similarity (mean proportion of bands shared). Special planting or mating protocols for establishment of a vigorous American chestnut population from a low number of founders may not be required to avoid strong effects of genetic drift and inbreeding. These results demonstrate that loss of genetic diversity following reintroduction of a limited number of founders is not always inevitable, such as this case where the species is highly outcrossing, expression of heterozygous advantage may occur, the original founders remain as gene contributors over generations, and the establishing population expands constantly and rapidly.