Genetic diversity is essential for populations to adapt to changing environments. Measures of genetic diversity are often based on selectively neutral markers, such as microsatellites. Genetic diversity to guide conservation management, however, is better reflected by adaptive markers, including genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Our aim was to assess MHC and neutral genetic diversity in two contrasting bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) populations in Western Australia—one apparently viable population with high reproductive output (Shark Bay) and one with lower reproductive output that was forecast to decline (Bunbury). We assessed genetic variation in the two populations by sequencing the MHC class II DQB, which encompasses the functionally important peptide binding regions (PBR). Neutral genetic diversity was assessed by genotyping twenty-three microsatellite loci. We confirmed that MHC is an adaptive marker in both populations. Overall, the Shark Bay population exhibited greater MHC diversity than the Bunbury population—for example, it displayed greater MHC nucleotide diversity. In contrast, the difference in microsatellite diversity between the two populations was comparatively low. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that viable populations typically display greater genetic diversity than less viable populations. The results also suggest that MHC variation is more closely associated with population viability than neutral genetic variation. Although the inferences from our findings are limited, because we only compared two populations, our results add to a growing number of studies that highlight the usefulness of MHC as a potentially suitable genetic marker for animal conservation. The Shark Bay population, which carries greater adaptive genetic diversity than the Bunbury population, is thus likely more robust to natural or human-induced changes to the coastal ecosystem it inhabits.
- adaptive genetic variation
- bottlenose dolphin
- conservation genetics
- major histocompatibility complex