Reduced heterozygosity depresses sperm quality in wild rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus

Curr Biol. 2006 Mar 21;16(6):612-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.02.059.


When close relatives are forced to reproduce, the resulting offspring inherit above average homozygosity and reduced fitness. Biologists now recognize inbreeding depression in the wild, a phenomenon that will probably increase as natural populations become depleted and fragmented. Inbreeding depression is most commonly expressed as compromised fertility and embryogenesis, but actual mechanisms remain poorly understood, especially for wild populations. Here, we examine how reduced heterozygosity influences spermatozoal and gonadal traits in wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) sampled across the United Kingdom. By using a suite of 29 microsatellite markers (analyzed to confirm representation of individual heterozygosity across our sample), we found a significant negative relationship between heterozygosity and the production of normal sperm; the relationship was significant both between (n = 12) and within (n = 91 [total males], 42 [island], 49 [mainland]) populations. Reduced heterozygosity was also associated with decreased testis size across males (n = 112), but no relationship was seen at the population level, suggesting environmental confounds. Our results show, for a wild mammal, that inbreeding is associated with decreased sperm quality, confirming suggestions of links between inbreeding and elevated sperm abnormalities in rare felids . These findings could explain why inbreeding depression so frequently arises via compromised fertility and embryogenesis .

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Heterozygote*
  • Homozygote
  • Inbreeding
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics
  • Rabbits / genetics*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Spermatogenesis
  • Spermatozoa / cytology
  • Spermatozoa / physiology*
  • Testis / anatomy & histology
  • United Kingdom