, Volume 58, Issue 6, pp 897-907

Differences in body mass, health status and genetic variation between insular and mainland brown hares (Lepus europaeus) in Sweden

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Abstract

Introduced populations can be affected by random processes such as genetic drift, deterministic processes given by the local environmental conditions and anthropogenic factors such as hunting and management. Geographically constrained populations are particularly exposed to these processes, and altogether, these factors may result in rapid differentiation from the ancestral populations. The introduced European brown hare (Lepus europaeus) population on the island Ven is isolated from the Swedish and Danish mainland. Undocumented observations suggest that the hares on the island have been increasingly diseased in recent years and also decreased in body size. To test the substance of these observations, as well as the potential for inbreeding depression in this geographically constrained population, a total of 321 hares from Ven and three reference populations on the Swedish mainland were analysed with respect to body mass, general health status and genetic variation. The results confirm that the hares on Ven have lower body mass than hares on the mainland, but there are no indications of health deficits. We argue that the difference in body mass primarily is an island effect of stress and/or nutritional shortage, possibly induced by high population density, anthropogenic selection regimes and absence of mammalian meso-predators. Further, the genetic data indicate that the insular population is substructured, and subadults from these two subpopulations differ in body mass. This apparent substructuring could be due to chance effects, but may also be related to assortative mating or presence of sustained populations with different ancestry.

Communicated by P. Alves