Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UC San Francisco Previously Published Works bannerUCSF

Purging of Strongly Deleterious Mutations Explains Long-Term Persistence and Absence of Inbreeding Depression in Island Foxes


The recovery and persistence of rare and endangered species are often threatened by genetic factors, such as the accumulation of deleterious mutations, loss of adaptive potential, and inbreeding depression [1]. Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis), the dwarfed descendants of mainland gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), have inhabited California's Channel Islands for >9,000 years [2-4]. Previous genomic analyses revealed that island foxes have exceptionally low levels of diversity and elevated levels of putatively deleterious variation [5]. Nonetheless, all six populations have persisted for thousands of generations, and several populations rebounded rapidly after recent severe bottlenecks [6, 7]. Here, we combine morphological and genomic data with population-genetic simulations to determine the mechanism underlying the enigmatic persistence of these foxes. First, through analysis of genomes from 1929 to 2009, we show that island foxes have remained at small population sizes with low diversity for many generations. Second, we present morphological data indicating an absence of inbreeding depression in island foxes, confirming that they are not afflicted with congenital defects common to other small and inbred populations. Lastly, our population-genetic simulations suggest that long-term small population size results in a reduced burden of strongly deleterious recessive alleles, providing a mechanism for the absence of inbreeding depression in island foxes. Importantly, the island fox illustrates a scenario in which genetic restoration through human-assisted gene flow could be a counterproductive or even harmful conservation strategy. Our study sheds light on the puzzle of island fox persistence, a unique success story that provides a model for the preservation of small populations.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View