Genetic surfing during the range expansion of an endangered large carnivore

  • publication
  • 30-11-2023

Tensen, L., Currat, M., Davies-Mostert, H. et al.. Biodivers Conserv (2023).

In an effort to halt the global decline of large carnivores, reintroductions have become increasingly popular to establish satellite populations and reduce the risk of stochastic events. These artificial range expansions are typically formed by a small number of founders, which can lead to changes in population genetic structure. For instance, serial founder events can lead to neutral and even deleterious alleles reaching higher than expected frequencies along the front end of an expansion, referred to as gene surfing. One of the world’s most extensive range expansion programmes has been for endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). In this study, we examine the effect of continent-wide translocations on spatial genetic diversity, by determining what effect genetic surfing has on population structure in wild dogs, and measuring how long it will take for population structure to homogenize in the face of ongoing dispersal. We used a set of microsatellite loci to look at surfing alleles in five populations across southern Africa, and simulated the movement of these alleles forward in time under the current demographic scenario. We found that it would take about 150 generations for the expanding population to be 50% introgressed with genes from the free-roaming population. With the current rate of translocations, genetic differentiation in southern Africa will disappear, overturning the effects of genetic drift or surfing alleles. Understanding genetic patterns in expanding populations is of great interest to conservation, and we demonstrate that reintroduction programmes can help restore genetic diversity, and consequently adaptive potential, in recovering wildlife populations.

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