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The genetic legacy of the 19th-century decline of the British polecat: evidence for extensive introgression from feral ferrets

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Abstract

In the 19th century, the British polecat suffered a demographic contraction, as a consequence of direct persecution, reaching its lowest population in the years that preceded the First World War. The polecat is now recovering and expanding throughout Britain, but introgressive hybridization with feral ferrets has been reported, which could be masking the true range of the polecat and introducing domestic genes into the species. We used a fragment of the mitochondrial DNA control region and 11 microsatellite loci to characterize the frequency and extent of hybridization and introgression between the two species and assess whether the 19th-century decline corresponded to a genetic bottleneck in the polecat. The proportion of admixture detected in the wild was high (31%) and hybrids were more frequently found outside Wales, suggesting that hybridization is more likely to occur along the eastern edge of the polecat's range expansion. The patterns observed in the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA data show that introgression was mediated by crosses between male polecats and female ferrets, whose offspring backcrossed with polecats. No first-generation (F1) hybrids were identified, and the broad range of observed admixture proportions agrees with a scenario of past extensive hybridization between the two species. Using several different methods to investigate demographic history, we did not find consistent evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the British polecat, a result that could be interpreted as a consequence of hybridization with ferrets. Our results highlight the importance of the Welsh polecat population for the conservation and restoration of the genetic identity of the British polecat.

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