Founding Events and the Maintenance of Genetic Diversity in Reintroduced Populations
As habitat loss, introduced predators, and disease epidemics threaten species worldwide, translocation provides one of the most powerful tools for species conservation. However, reintroduced populations of threatened species are often founded by a small number of individuals (typically 30 in New Zealand) and generally have low success rates. The loss of genetic diversity combined with inbreeding depression in a small reintroduced population could reduce the probability of establishment and persistence. Effective management of genetic diversity is therefore central to the success of reintroduced populations in both the short- and long-term. Using population modelling and empirical data from source and reintroduced populations of skinks and tuatara, I examined factors that influence inbreeding dynamics and the long-term maintenance of genetic diversity in translocated populations. The translocation of gravid females aided in increasing the effective population size after reintroduction. Models showed that supplementation of reintroduced populations reduced the loss of heterozygosity over 10 generations in species with low reproductive output, but not for species with higher output. Harvesting from a reintroduced population for a second-order translocation accelerated the loss of heterozygosity in species with low intrinsic rates of population growth. Male reproductive skew also accelerated the loss of genetic diversity over 10 generations, but the effect was only significant when the population size was small. Further, when populations at opposite ends of a species' historic range are disproportionately vulnerable to extinction and background inbreeding is high, genetic differentiation among populations may be an artefact of an historic genetic gradient coupled with rapid genetic drift. In these situations, marked genetic differences should not preclude hybridising populations to mitigate the risks of inbreeding after reintroduction. These results improve translocation planning for many species by offering guidelines for maximising genetic diversity in founder groups and managing populations to improve the long-term maintenance of diversity. For example, founder groups should be larger than 30 for reintroductions of species with low reproductive output, high mortality rates after release, highly polygynous mating systems, and high levels of background inbreeding. This study also provides a basis for the development of more complex models of losses of genetic diversity after translocation and how genetic drift may affect the long-term persistence of these valuable populations.