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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Trapped in the extinction vortex? Strong genetic effects in a declining vertebrate population

Donald Blomqvist1*, Angela Pauliny1, Mikael Larsson2 and Lars-Åke Flodin3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology, University of Gothenburg, Box 463, Gothenburg, 405 30, Sweden

2 Ljungvägen 3, Väröbacka, 430 22, Sweden

3 Rannevägen 12, Varberg, 432 95, Sweden

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:33  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-33

Published: 2 February 2010

Abstract

Background

Inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity are expected to increase the extinction risk of small populations, but detailed tests in natural populations are scarce. We combine long-term population and fitness data with those from two types of molecular markers to examine the role of genetic effects in a declining metapopulation of southern dunlins Calidris alpina schinzii, an endangered shorebird.

Results

The decline is associated with increased pairings between related individuals, including close inbreeding (as revealed by both field observations of parentage and molecular markers). Furthermore, reduced genetic diversity seems to affect individual fitness at several life stages. Higher genetic similarity between mates correlates negatively with the pair's hatching success. Moreover, offspring produced by related parents are more homozygous and suffer from increased mortality during embryonic development and possibly also after hatching.

Conclusions

Our results demonstrate strong genetic effects in a rapidly declining population, emphasizing the importance of genetic factors for the persistence of small populations.