Erosion of heterozygosity in fluctuating populations

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Demographic, environmental, and genetic stochasticity threaten the persistence of isolated populations. The relative importance of these intertwining factors remains unresolved, but a common view is that random demographic and environmental events will usually drive small populations to the brink of extinction before genetic deterioration poses a serious threat. To evaluate the potential importance of genetic factors, we analyzed a model linking demographic and environmental conditions to the loss of genetic diversity in isolated populations undergoing natural levels of fluctuation. Nongenetic processes - environmental stochasticity and population demography - were modeled according to a bounded diffusion process. Genetic processes were modeled by quantifying the rate of drift according to the effective population size, which was predicted from the same parameters used to describe the nongenetic processes. We combined these models to predict the heterozygosity remaining at the time of extinction, as predicted by the nongenetic portion of the model Our model predicts that many populations will lose most or all of their neutral genetic diversity before nongenetic random events lead to extinction. Given the abundant evidence for inbreeding depression and recent evidence for elevated extinction rates of inbred populations, our findings suggest that inbreeding may be a greater general threat to population persistence than is generally recognized. Therefore, conservation biologists should not ignore the genetic component of extinction risk when assessing species endangerment and developing recovery plans.

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Conservation Biology