3 years ago

Genetic Allee effects and their interaction with ecological Allee effects

Genetic Allee effects and their interaction with ecological Allee effects
Hanna Stuis, Dirk Metzler, Meike J. Wittmann
It is now widely accepted that genetic processes such as inbreeding depression and loss of genetic variation can increase the extinction risk of small populations. However, it is generally unclear whether extinction risk from genetic causes gradually increases with decreasing population size or whether there is a sharp transition around a specific threshold population size. In the ecological literature, such threshold phenomena are called ‘strong Allee effects’ and they can arise for example from mate limitation in small populations. In this study, we aim to (i) develop a meaningful notion of a ‘strong genetic Allee effect’, (ii) explore whether and under what conditions such an effect can arise from inbreeding depression due to recessive deleterious mutations, and (iii) quantify the interaction of potential genetic Allee effects with the well-known mate-finding Allee effect. We define a strong genetic Allee effect as a genetic process that causes a population's survival probability to be a sigmoid function of its initial size. The inflection point of this function defines the critical population size. To characterize survival-probability curves, we develop and analyse simple stochastic models for the ecology and genetics of small populations. Our results indicate that inbreeding depression can indeed cause a strong genetic Allee effect, but only if individuals carry sufficiently many deleterious mutations (lethal equivalents). Populations suffering from a genetic Allee effect often first grow, then decline as inbreeding depression sets in and then potentially recover as deleterious mutations are purged. Critical population sizes of ecological and genetic Allee effects appear to be often additive, but even superadditive interactions are possible. Many published estimates for the number of lethal equivalents in birds and mammals fall in the parameter range where strong genetic Allee effects are expected. Unfortunately, extinction risk due to genetic Allee effects can easily be underestimated as populations with genetic problems often grow initially, but then crash later. Also interactions between ecological and genetic Allee effects can be strong and should not be neglected when assessing the viability of endangered or introduced populations. The modeling results indicate that inbreeding depression can produce a strong Allee effect where populations below a certain critical size tend to go extinct. Such genetic Allee effects can interact with ecological Allee effects, for example those due to mate-finding difficulties, to increase the extinction risk of small populations.

Publisher URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/resolve/doi

DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.12598

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