U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in Conserv Genet (2010) 11:721–735.


Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii Lesson) at White Island, Antarctica form a small, completely enclosed, natural population hypothesized to be of recent origin, likely founded by individuals from nearby Erebus Bay. This population constitutes an ideal model to document a founder event and ensuing genetic drift, with implications for conservation. Here we combined historical accounts, census and tagging data since the late 1960s, and genetic data (41 microsatellite loci and mitochondrial DNA sequences) from 84 individuals representing nearly all individuals present between 1990 and 2000 to investigate the history of the founding of the White Island population, document its population dynamics and evaluate possible future threats. We fully resolved parental relationships over three overlapping generations. Cytonuclear disequilibrium among the first generation suggested that it comprised the direct descendants of a founding group. We estimated that the White Island population was founded by a small group of individuals that accessed the island during a brief break in the surrounding sea ice in the mid-1950s, consistent with historical accounts. Direct and indirect methods of calculating effective population size were highly congruent and suggested a minimum founding group consisting of three females and two males. The White Island population showed altered reproductive dynamics compared to Erebus Bay, including highly skewed sex ratio, documented inbred mating events, and the oldest known reproducing Weddell seals. A comparison with the putative source population showed that the White Island population has an effective inbreeding coefficient (Fe) of 0.29. Based on a pedigree analysis including the hypothesized founding group, 86% of the individuals for whom parents were known had inbreeding coefficients ranging 0.09–0.31. This high level of inbreeding was correlated with reduced pup survival. Seals at White Island therefore face the combined effects of low genetic variability, lack of immigration, and inbreeding depression. Ultimately, this study provides evidence of the effects of natural isolation on a large, long-lived vertebrate and can provide clues to the potential effects of anthropogenic- caused isolation of similar taxa.