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Farmed arctic foxes on the Fennoscandian mountain tundra: implications for conservation

Norén, K., Kvaløy, K., Nyström, V., Landa, A., Dalén, L., Eide, N.E., Østbye, E., Henttonen, H., Angerbjörn, A.
Animal conservation 2009 v.12 no.5 pp. 434-444
Vulpes lagopus, adverse effects, farms, foxes, genetic techniques and protocols, haplotypes, hybridization, hybrids, microsatellite repeats, outbreeding depression, pollution, principal component analysis, risk, tundra, Norway
Hybridization between wild and captive-bred individuals is a serious conservation issue that requires measures to prevent negative effects. Such measures are, however, often considered controversial by the public, especially when concerning charismatic species. One of the threats to the critically endangered Fennoscandian arctic fox Alopex lagopus is hybridization with escaped farm foxes, conveying a risk of outbreeding depression through loss of local adaptations to the lemming cycle. In this study, we investigate the existence of escaped farm foxes among wild arctic foxes and whether hybridization has occurred in the wild. We analysed mitochondrial control region sequences and 10 microsatellite loci in samples from free-ranging foxes and compared them with reference samples of known farm foxes and true Fennoscandian arctic foxes. We identified the farm fox specific mitochondrial haplotype H9 in 25 out of 182 samples, 21 of which had been collected within or nearby the wild subpopulation on Hardangervidda in south-western Norway. Genetic analyses of museum specimens collected on Hardangervidda (1897-1975) suggested that farm fox genotypes have recently been introduced to the area. Principal component analysis as well as both model- and frequency-based analyses of microsatellite data imply that the free-ranging H9s were farm foxes rather than wild arctic foxes and that the entire Hardangervidda population consisted of farm foxes or putative hybrids. We strongly recommend removal of farm foxes and hybrids in the wild to prevent genetic pollution of the remaining wild subpopulations of threatened arctic foxes.