Background: Interactions between wildlife and humans are increasing. Urban animals are often less wary of humans than their non-urban counterparts, which could be explained by habituation, adaptation or local site selection. Under local site selection, individuals that are less tolerant of humans are less likely to settle in urban areas. However, there is little evidence for such temperament-based site selection, and even less is known about its underlying genetic basis. We tested whether site selection in urban and non-urban habitats by black swans (Cygnus atratus) was associated with polymorphisms in two genes linked to fear in animals, the dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) and serotonin transporter (SERT) genes.
Results: Wariness in swans was highly repeatable between disturbance events (repeatability = 0.61) and non-urban swans initiated escape from humans earlier than urban swans. We found no inter-individual variation in the SERT gene, but identified five DRD4 genotypes and an association between DRD4 genotype and wariness. Individuals possessing the most common DRD4 genotype were less wary than individuals possessing rarer genotypes. As predicted by the local site selection hypothesis, genotypes associated with wary behaviour were over three times more frequent at the non-urban site. This resulted in moderate population differentiation at DRD4 (FST = 0.080), despite the sites being separated by only 30 km, a short distance for this highly-mobile species. Low population differentiation at neutrally-selected microsatellite loci and the likely occasional migration of swans between the populations reduces the likelihood of local site adaptations.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that wariness in swans is partly genetically-determined and that wary swans settle in less-disturbed areas. More generally, our findings suggest that site-specific management strategies may be necessary that consider the temperament of local animals.