Do island populations have less genetic variation than mainland populations?

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Island populations are much more prone to extinction than mainland populations. The reasons for this remain controversial. If inbreeding and loss of genetic variation are involved, then genetic variation must be lower on average in island than mainland populations. Published data on levels of genetic variation for allozymes, nuclear DNA markers, mitochondrial DNA, inversions and quantitative characters in island and mainland populations were analysed. A large and highly significant majority of island populations have less allozyme genetic variation than their mainland counterparts (165 of 202 comparisons), the average reduction being 29 per cent. The magnitude of differences was related to dispersal ability. There were related differences for all the other measures. Island endemic species showed lower genetic variation than related mainland species in 34 of 38 cases. The proportionate reduction in genetic variation was significantly greater in island endemic than in nonendemic island populations in mammals and birds, but not in insects. Genetic factors cannot be discounted as a cause of higher extinction rates of island than mainland populations.


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Frankham, R. Do island populations have less genetic variation than mainland populations?. Heredity 78, 311–327 (1997) doi:10.1038/hdy.1997.46

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  • allozymes
  • conservation
  • endemic species
  • extinction
  • genetic variation
  • islands

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