Reinforcements in the face of ongoing threats: A case study from a critically small carnivore population

Type: Journal Article

Reference: McLennan, E.A., Cheng, Y., Farquharson, K.A., Grueber, C.E., Elmer, J., Alexander, L., Fox, S., Belov, K. and Hogg, C.J., 2024. Reinforcements in the face of ongoing threats: a case study from a critically small carnivore population. Animal Conservation.


Reinforcements are a well-established tool for alleviating small population pressures of inbreeding and genetic diversity loss. Some small populations also suffer from specific threats that pose a discrete selective pressure, like diseases. Uncertainty about reinforcing diseased populations exists, as doing so may increase disease prevalence and disrupt potential adaptive processes. However, without assisted gene flow, isolated populations are at high risk of extinction. Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are a useful case study to test whether reinforcements can alleviate small-population pressures where there is an ongoing disease pressure. We investigated demographic, genome-wide and functional genetic diversity, and disease consequences of reinforcing a small population (<20 animals) that was severely impacted by devil facial tumour disease. Released animals from one source population successfully bred with incumbent individuals, tripling the population size, improving genome-wide and functional diversity and introducing 26 new putatively functional alleles, with no common alleles lost and no increase in disease prevalence. Results suggest, in the case of Tasmanian devils, reinforcements can alleviate small-population pressures without increasing disease prevalence. Because no common functional alleles were lost, it is likely that any adaptive processes in response to the disease may still occur in the reinforced population, perhaps even with greater efficiency due to reduced genetic drift (due to larger population size). Our study is presented as a comprehensive worked example of the IUCN’s guidelines for monitoring reinforcements, to showcase the value of genetic monitoring in a richly monitored system and provide realistic approaches to test similar questions in other taxa.