Hybridization following population collapse in a critically endangered antelope

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Abstract

Population declines may promote interspecific hybridization due to the shortage of conspecific mates (Hubb's 'desperation' hypothesis), thus greatly increasing the risk of species extinction. Yet, confirming this process in the wild has proved elusive. Here we combine camera-trapping and molecular surveys over seven years to document demographic processes associated with introgressive hybridization between the critically endangered giant sable antelope (Hippotragus niger variani), and the naturally sympatric roan antelope (H. equinus). Hybrids with intermediate phenotypes, including backcrosses with roan, were confirmed in one of the two remnant giant sable populations. Hybridization followed population depletion of both species due to severe wartime poaching. In the absence of mature sable males, a mixed herd of sable females and hybrids formed and grew progressively over time. To prevent further hybridization and recover this small population, all sable females were confined to a large enclosure, to which sables from the other remnant population were translocated. Given the large scale declines in many animal populations, hybridization and introgression associated with the scarcity of conspecific mates may be an increasing cause of biodiversity conservation concern. In these circumstances, the early detection of hybrids should be a priority in the conservation management of small populations.

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Vaz Pinto, P., Beja, P., Ferrand, N., & Godinho, R. (2016). Hybridization following population collapse in a critically endangered antelope. Scientific Reports, 6. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep18788

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