Parasite-mediated selection against inbred Soay sheep in a free-living, island population

D W Coltman, J G Pilkington, J A Smith, J M Pemberton

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Parasites are thought to provide a selective force capable of promoting genetic variation in natural populations. One rarely considered pathway for this action is via parasite-mediated selection against inbreeding. If parasites impose a fitness cost on their host and the offspring of close relatives have greater susceptibility to parasites due to the increased homozygosity that results from inbreeding, then parasite-mediated mortality may select against inbred individuals. This hypothesis has not yet been tested within a natural vertebrate population. Here we show that relatively inbred Soay sheep (Ovis aries), as assessed by microsatellite heterozygosity, are more susceptible to parasitism by gastrointestinal nematodes, with interactions indicating,greatest susceptibility among adult sheep at high population density. During periods of high overwinter mortality on the island of Hirta, St. Kilda, Scotland, highly parasitised individuals were less likely to survive. More inbred individuals were also less likely to survive, which is due to their increased susceptibility to parasitism, because survival was random with respect to inbreeding among sheep that were experimentally cleared of their gastrointestinal parasite burden by anthelminthic treatment. As a consequence of this selection, average microsatellite heterozygosity increases with age in St. Kildan Soay sheep. We suggest that parasite-mediated selection acts to maintain genetic variation in this small island population by removing less heterozygous individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1259-1267
Number of pages9
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1999

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