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Concept: Minimum viable population


The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe has seen many countries rush to construct border security fencing to divert or control the flow of people. This follows a trend of border fence construction across Eurasia during the post-9/11 era. This development has gone largely unnoticed by conservation biologists during an era in which, ironically, transboundary cooperation has emerged as a conservation paradigm. These fences represent a major threat to wildlife because they can cause mortality, obstruct access to seasonally important resources, and reduce effective population size. We summarise the extent of the issue and propose concrete mitigation measures.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Population ecology, Europe, Population genetics, Effective population size, Population size, Minimum viable population, Fencing


The 50/500 rule has been used as a guiding principle in conservation for assessing minimum viable effective population size (N(e)). There is much confusion in the recent literature about how the 500 value should be applied to assess extinction risk and set priorities in conservation biology. Here, we argue that the confusion arises when the genetic basis for a short-term N(e) of 50 to avoid inbreeding depression is used to justify a long-term N(e) of 500 to maintain evolutionary potential. This confusion can result in misleading conclusions about how genetic arguments alone are sufficient to set minimum viable population (MVP) thresholds for assessing the extinction risk of threatened species, especially those that emphasize that MVPs should be in the thousands to maintain evolutionary potential.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Evolution, Species, Population genetics, Extinction, Effective population size, Population bottleneck, Minimum viable population


For decades conservation biologists have proposed general rules of thumb for minimum viable population size (MVP); typically, they range from hundreds to thousands of individuals. These rules have shifted conservation resources away from small and fragmented populations. We examined whether iteroparous, long-lived species might constitute an exception to general MVP guidelines. On the basis of results from a 10-year capture-recapture study in eastern New York (U.S.A.), we developed a comprehensive demographic model for the globally threatened bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), which is designated as endangered by the IUCN in 2011. We assessed population viability across a wide range of initial abundances and carrying capacities. Not accounting for inbreeding, our results suggest that bog turtle colonies with as few as 15 breeding females have >90% probability of persisting for >100 years, provided vital rates and environmental variance remain at currently estimated levels. On the basis of our results, we suggest that MVP thresholds may be 1-2 orders of magnitude too high for many long-lived organisms. Consequently, protection of small and fragmented populations may constitute a viable conservation option for such species, especially in a regional or metapopulation context. Reexaminando el Concepto de Población Mínima Viable para Especies Longevas Resumen.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Biology, Species, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population genetics, Minimum viable population


Genetic diversity is positively linked to the viability and evolutionary potential of species but is often compromised in threatened taxa. Genetic rescue by gene flow from a more diverse or differentiated source population of the same species can be an effective strategy for alleviating inbreeding depression and boosting evolutionary potential. The helmeted honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops cassidix is a critically endangered subspecies of the common yellow-tufted honeyeater. Cassidix has declined to a single wild population of ~130 birds, despite being subject to intensive population management over recent decades. We assessed changes in microsatellite diversity in cassidix over the last four decades and used population viability analysis to explore whether genetic rescue through hybridisation with the neighbouring L. m. gippslandicus subspecies constitutes a viable conservation strategy. The contemporary cassidix population is characterised by low genetic diversity and effective population size (Ne <50), suggesting it is vulnerable to inbreeding depression and will have limited capacity to evolve to changing environments. We find that gene flow from gippslandicus to cassidix has declined substantially relative to pre-1990 levels and argue that natural levels of gene flow between the two subspecies should be restored. Allowing gene flow (~4 migrants per generation) from gippslandicus into cassidix(i.e. genetic rescue), in combination with continued annual release of captive-bred cassidix (i.e. demographic rescue), should lead to positive demographic and genetic outcomes. Although we consider the risk of outbreeding depression to be low, we recommend that genetic rescue be managed within the context of the captive-breeding program, with monitoring of outcomes. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Genetics, Species, Endangered species, Population genetics, Minimum viable population, Lichenostomus, Helmeted Honeyeater, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater


The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) in Ecuador is classified as Critically Endangered. Before 2015, standardized and systematic estimates of geographic distribution, population size and structure were not available for this species, hampering the assessment of its current status and hindering the design and implementation of effective conservation actions. In this study, we performed the first quantitative assessment of geographic distribution, population size and population viability of Andean Condor in Ecuador. We used a methodological approach that included an ecological niche model to study geographic distribution, a simultaneous survey of 70 roosting sites to estimate population size and a population viability analysis (PVA) for the next 100 years. Geographic distribution in the form of extent of occurrence was 49 725 km2. During a two-day census, 93 Andean Condors were recorded and a population of 94 to 102 individuals was estimated. In this population, adult-to-immature ratio was 1:0.5. In the modeled PVA scenarios, the probability of extinction, mean time to extinction and minimum population size varied from zero to 100%, 63 years and 193 individuals, respectively. Habitat loss is the greatest threat to the conservation of Andean Condor populations in Ecuador. Population size reduction in scenarios that included habitat loss began within the first 15 years of this threat. Population reinforcement had no effects on the recovery of Andean Condor populations given the current status of the species in Ecuador. The population size estimate presented in this study is the lower than those reported previously in other countries where the species occur. The inferences derived from the population viability analysis have implications for Condor management in Ecuador. This study highlights the need to redirect efforts from captive breeding and population reinforcement to habitat conservation.

Concepts: Ecology, Argentina, Andes, New World vulture, Habitat fragmentation, California Condor, Minimum viable population, Andean Condor


Bees are the primary pollinators of flowering plants in almost all ecosystems. Worldwide declines in bee populations have raised awareness about the importance of their ecological role in maintaining ecosystem functioning. The naturally strong philopatric behavior that some bee species show can be detrimental to population viability through increased probability of inbreeding. Furthermore, bee populations found in human-altered landscapes, such as urban areas, can experience lower levels of gene flow and effective population sizes, increasing potential for inbreeding depression in wild bee populations. In this study, we investigated the fine-scale population structure of the solitary bee Colletes inaequalis in an urbanized landscape. First, we developed a predictive spatial model to detect suitable nesting habitat for this ground nesting bee and to inform our field search for nests. We genotyped 18 microsatellites in 548 female individuals collected from nest aggregations throughout the study area. Genetic relatedness estimates revealed that genetic similarity among individuals was slightly greater within nest aggregations than among randomly chosen individuals. However, genetic structure among nest aggregations was low (Nei’s GST = 0.011). Reconstruction of parental genotypes revealed greater genetic relatedness among females than among males within nest aggregations, suggesting male-mediated dispersal as a potentially important mechanism of population connectivity and inbreeding avoidance. Size of nesting patch was positively correlated with effective population size, but not with other estimators of genetic diversity. We detected a positive trend between geographic distance and genetic differentiation between nest aggregations. Our landscape genetic models suggest that increased urbanization is likely associated with higher levels of inbreeding. Overall, these findings emphasize the importance of density and distribution of suitable nesting patches for enhancing bee population abundance and connectivity in human dominated habitats and highlights the critical contribution of landscape genetic studies for enhanced conservation and management of native pollinators.

Concepts: Genetics, Population ecology, Ecology, Population genetics, Bee, Effective population size, Population size, Minimum viable population


Counting rare and elusive animals and evaluating their demographic status, are fundamental yet challenging aspects of population ecology and conservation biology. We set out to estimate population size (Nc), genetic effective population size (Ne gen), sex ratio, and movements based on genetic tagging for the threatened Cantabrian capercaillie. We used 9 microsatellite loci to genotype 134 droppings collected at 34 display areas during the breeding season. Using genetic capture-mark-recapture, we estimated 93 individuals (Nc, 95% CI: 70-116) in an area of about 500 km2, with sex ratio biased towards males (1∶1.6). Estimated Ne gen (35.5) was 38% of Nc, notably higher than the published average in wild populations. This capercaillie population is small and well within concern in terms of population viability. By genetic tagging, we detected mostly short movements; just a few males were recaptured between contiguous display areas. Non-invasive surveys of endangered populations have a great potential, yet adequate sample size and location are key to obtain reliable information on conservation status.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Ecology, Population genetics, Minimum viable population


Using computer simulations, we evaluate the effects of genetic purging of inbreeding load in small populations, assuming genetic models of deleterious mutations which account for the typical amount of load empirically observed. Our results show that genetic purging efficiently removes the inbreeding load of both lethal and non-lethal mutations, reducing the amount of inbreeding depression relative to that expected without selection. We find that the minimum effective population size to avoid severe inbreeding depression in the short term is of the order of Ne≈70 for a wide range of species' reproductive rates. We also carried out simulations of captive breeding populations where two contrasting management methods are performed, one avoiding inbreeding (equalisation of parental contributions (EC)) and the other forcing it (circular sib mating (CM)). We show that, for the inbreeding loads considered, CM leads to unacceptably high extinction risks and, as a result, to lower genetic diversity than EC. Thus we conclude that methods aimed at enhancing purging by intentional inbreeding should not be generally advised in captive breeding conservation programmes.Heredity advance online publication, 14 September 2016; doi:10.1038/hdy.2016.80.

Concepts: Evolution, Population ecology, Population genetics, Term, Extinction, Breeding, Population bottleneck, Minimum viable population


Integral projection models (IPM) make it possible to study populations structured by continuous traits. Recently, Vindenes et al. (Ecology 92:1146-1156, 2011) proposed an extended IPM to analyse the dynamics of small populations in stochastic environments, but this model has not yet been used to conduct population viability analyses. Here, we used the extended IPM to analyse the stochastic dynamics of IPM of small size-structured populations in one plant and one animal species (evening primrose and common lizard) including demographic stochasticity in both cases and environmental stochasticity in the lizard model. We also tested the accuracy of a diffusion approximation of the IPM for the two empirical systems. In both species, the elasticity for λ was higher with respect to parameters linked to body growth and size-dependent reproduction rather than survival. An analytical approach made it possible to quantify demographic and environmental variance to calculate the average stochastic growth rate. Demographic variance was further decomposed to gain insights into the most important size classes and demographic components. A diffusion approximation provided a remarkable fit to the stochastic dynamics and cumulative extinction risk, except for very small populations where stochastic growth rate was biased upward or downward depending on the model. These results confirm that the extended IPM provides a powerful tool to assess the conservation status and compare the stochastic demography of size-structured species, but should be complemented with individual based models to obtain unbiased estimates for very small populations of conservation concern.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Biology, Species, Plant, Demography, Population, Ecology, Minimum viable population