Breeding programs to conserve diversity are predicated on the assumption that genetic variation in adaptively important traits will be lost in parallel to the loss of variation at neutral loci. To test this assumption, we monitored quantitative traits across 18 generations of Peromyscus leucopus mice propagated with protocols that mirror breeding programs for threatened species. Ears, hind feet, and tails became shorter, but changes were reversible by outcrossing and therefore were due to accumulated inbreeding. Heritability of ear length decreased, because of an increase in phenotypic variance rather than the expected decrease in additive genetic variance. Additive genetic variance in hind foot length increased. This trait initially had low heritability but large dominance or common environmental variance contributing to resemblance among full-sibs. The increase in the additive component indicates that there was conversion of interaction variances to additive variance. For no trait did additive genetic variation decrease significantly across generations. These findings indicate that the restructuring of genetic variance that occurs with genetic drift and novel selection in captivity can prevent or delay the loss of phenotypic and heritable variation, providing variation on which selection can act to adapt populations to captivity and perhaps later to readapt to more natural habitats after release. Therefore, the importance of minimizing loss of gene diversity from conservation breeding programs for threatened wildlife species might lie in preventing immediate reduction in individual fitness due to inbreeding and protecting allelic diversity for long-term evolutionary change, more so than in protecting variation in quantitative traits for rapid re-adaptation to wild environments.
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Allison Walsh was an essential contributor to this project, assisting with study design and lab management, and providing animal care and data collection, until her tragic death in the middle of the study. Funding was provided by the Chicago Zoological Society, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. AFM was supported by a MEC/Fulbright fellowship (FU2005-0893).
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Lacy, R.C., Malo, A.F. & Alaks, G. Maintenance of genetic variation in quantitative traits of a woodland rodent during generations of captive breeding. Conserv Genet 19, 789–802 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-018-1054-y
- Adaptation to captivity
- Genetic variance
- Conversion of genetic variation
- Peromyscus leucopus