Sustainability of the South China tiger: implications of inbreeding depression and introgression
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The South China tiger (Panther tigris amoyensis) is critically endangered with 73 remaining individuals living in captivity, all derived from six wild founders since 1963. The population shows a low level of juvenile survivorship and reproductive difficulties, and faces a huge conservation challenge. In this study, inbreeding depression and genetic diversity decline were examined by using pedigree data and 17 microsatellites. The constant B, which is related to the number of lethal equivalents, was estimated to be 0 for the offspring of noninbred parents, but was >0 for the offspring of inbred parents and for all offspring. Percentage of successfully breeding tigers inversely correlated with inbreeding level (r = −0.626, α = 0.05). Taken together, these findings suggest the population is suffering from inbreeding depression in juvenile survivorship and fecundity. No significant correlation was detectable for the mean litter size with f of either dams (r = −0.305, α = 0.46) or kittens (r = 0.105, α = 0.71), indicating litter size was not strongly subject to inbreeding depression. The average number of alleles per locus was 4.24 ± 1.03 (SE), but effective number of alleles was only 2.53 ± 0.91. Twenty-one alleles carried by early breeders at 13 loci were absent in the present breeders and potential breeders. Multilocus heterozygosity was inversely correlated with inbreeding levels (r = −0.601, α = 0.004). These findings suggest rapid allelic diversity loss is occurring in this small captive population and that heterozygosity is being lost as it becomes more inbred. Our phylogenetic analysis supports past work indicating introgression from northern Indochinese tigers in the population. As no wild representatives of the South China tiger can be added to the captive population, we may consider the alternate scenario of further introgression in the interest of countering inbreeding depression and declining genetic diversity.