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Revealing life‐history traits by contrasting genetic estimations with predictions of effective population size

Greenbaum, Gili, Renan, Sharon, Templeton, Alan R., Bouskila, Amos, Saltz, David, Rubenstein, Daniel I., Bar‐David, Shirli
Conservation biology 2018 v.32 no.4 pp. 817-827
Equus hemionus, conservation practices, demography, effective population size, females, gene pool, genetic drift, heritability, life history, males, polygyny, prediction, reproductive success, surveys, variance, wildlife management
Effective population size, a central concept in conservation biology, is now routinely estimated from genetic surveys and can also be theoretically predicted from demographic, life‐history, and mating‐system data. By evaluating the consistency of theoretical predictions with empirically estimated effective size, insights can be gained regarding life‐history characteristics and the relative impact of different life‐history traits on genetic drift. These insights can be used to design and inform management strategies aimed at increasing effective population size. We demonstrated this approach by addressing the conservation of a reintroduced population of Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus). We estimated the variance effective size (Nₑᵥ) from genetic data (N ev =24.3) and formulated predictions for the impacts on Nₑᵥ of demography, polygyny, female variance in lifetime reproductive success (RS), and heritability of female RS. By contrasting the genetic estimation with theoretical predictions, we found that polygyny was the strongest factor affecting genetic drift because only when accounting for polygyny were predictions consistent with the genetically measured Nₑᵥ. The comparison of effective‐size estimation and predictions indicated that 10.6% of the males mated per generation when heritability of female RS was unaccounted for (polygyny responsible for 81% decrease in Nₑᵥ) and 19.5% mated when female RS was accounted for (polygyny responsible for 67% decrease in Nₑᵥ). Heritability of female RS also affected Nₑᵥ; hf2=0.91 (heritability responsible for 41% decrease in Nₑᵥ). The low effective size is of concern, and we suggest that management actions focus on factors identified as strongly affecting Nev, namely, increasing the availability of artificial water sources to increase number of dominant males contributing to the gene pool. This approach, evaluating life‐history hypotheses in light of their impact on effective population size, and contrasting predictions with genetic measurements, is a general, applicable strategy that can be used to inform conservation practice.