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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The role of humans in the diversification of a threatened island raptor

Rosa Agudo1*, Ciro Rico2, Carles Vilà3, Fernando Hiraldo1 and José Antonio Donázar1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Conservation Biology, Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), Av. Américo Vespucio s/n, E-41092 Seville, Spain

2 Department of Wetland Ecology, Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), Av. Américo Vespucio s/n, E-41092 Seville, Spain

3 Department of Integrative Ecology, Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), Av. Américo Vespucio s/n, E-41092 Seville, Spain

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:384  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-384

Published: 13 December 2010

Abstract

Background

Anthropogenic habitat modifications have led to the extinction of many species and have favoured the expansion of others. Nonetheless, the possible role of humans as a diversifying force in vertebrate evolution has rarely been considered, especially for species with long generation times. We examine the influence that humans have had on the colonization and phenotypic and genetic differentiation of an insular population of a long-lived raptor species, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).

Results

The morphological comparison between the Canarian Egyptian vultures and the main and closest population in Western Europe (Iberia) indicated that insular vultures are significantly heavier (16%) and larger (about 3%) than those from Iberia. Bayesian and standard genetic analyses also showed differentiation (FST = 0.11, p < 0.01). The inference of changes in the effective size of the Canarian deme, using two likelihood-based Bayesian approaches, suggested that the establishment of this insular population took place some 2500 years ago, matching the date of human colonization. This is consistent with the lack of earlier fossils.

Conclusions

Archaeological remains show that first colonizers were Berber people from northern Africa who imported goats. This new and abundant food source could have allowed vultures to colonize, expand and adapt to the island environment. Our results suggest that anthropogenic environmental change can induce diversification and that this process may take place on an ecological time scale (less than 200 generations), even in the case of a long-lived species.