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Inbreeding and extinction in a butterfly metapopulation


It has been proposed that inbreeding contributes to the decline and eventual extinction of small and isolated populations1,2. There is ample evidence of fitness reduction due to inbreeding (inbreeding depression) in captivity3,4,5,6,7 and from a few experimental8,9 and observational field studies10,11, but no field studies on natural populations have been conducted to test the proposed effect on extinction. It has been argued that in natural populations the impact of inbreeding depression on population survival will be insignificant in comparison to that of demographic and environmental stochasticity12,13. We have now studied the effect of inbreeding on local extinction in a large metapopulation14 of the Glanville fritillary butterfly (Melitaea cinxia)15. We found that extinction risk increased significantly with decreasing heterozygosity, an indication of inbreeding6, even after accounting for the effects of the relevant ecological factors. Larval survival, adult longevity and egg-hatching rate were found to be adversely affected by inbreeding and appear to be the fitness components underlying the relationship between inbreeding and extinction. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of an effect of inbreeding on the extinction of natural populations. Our results are particularly relevant to the increasing number of species with small local populations due to habitat loss and fragmentation16.

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Figure 1: Map of Åland in southwestern Finland showing the locations of the 42 local populations from which adult female butterflies were sampled in summer 1996 (large symbols).
Figure 2: For both global and sample models (Table 1), the upper panels show: (1) the observed average number of heterozygous loci in extinct (black) and surviving (white) populations; (2) the probability of extinction predicted by the models without heterozygosity compared with the observed heterozygosity; (3) the probability of extinction predicted by the full model, including heterozygosity (proportional to circle size).


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We thank K. Higgins, L. Keller, R. Lande, M. Lynch, A. Moilanen, R. Nichols, S. van Nouhuys, M. Singer and C. Thomas for their helpful comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ilik Saccheri.

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Saccheri, I., Kuussaari, M., Kankare, M. et al. Inbreeding and extinction in a butterfly metapopulation. Nature 392, 491–494 (1998).

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