Genetic diversity and relatedness within packs in an intensely hunted population of wolvesCanis lupus
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A population of grey wolvesCanis lupus Linnaeus, 1758 inhabiting Białowieża Primeval Forest (BPF) on the Polish-Belarussian border has recovered after near extermination in the 1970s. Currently, it is intensively hunted in the Belarussian part of BPF and protected in the Polish part. We used a combination of molecular analysis, radiotracking, and field observation to study genetic diversity of the population after natural recolonisation and the consequences of heavy hunting for the genetic composition and social structure of wolf packs. Both microsatellite and mtDNA analyses revealed high genetic diversity. For 29 individuals and 20 microsatellite loci, the mean expected heterozygosity was 0.733. Four mtDNA haplotypes were found. Three of them had earlier been described from Europe. Their geographic distribution suggests that wolves recolonising BPF immigrated mainly from the north-east, and less effectively from the east and south-east. We traced the composition of 6 packs for a total of 26 pack-years. Packs were family units (a breeding pair with offspring) with occasional adoption of unrelated adult males, which occurred more frequently in packs living in the Belarussian part of the BPF, due to heavy hunting and poaching. Breeding pairs were half-sibs or unrelated wolves. Pair-bonds in the breeding pair lasted from 1 to 4 years and usually broke by the death of one or both mates. Successors of breeding females were their daughters, while a successor of a breeding male could be either his son or an alien wolf. As is evident from Białowieża’s wolves, high genetic diversity may result from immigration of outside individuals, which are easily recruited to a heavily exploited local population.
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