Do black-tailed prairie dogs minimize inbreeding?

F. Stephen Dobson, Ronald K. Chesser, John L. Hoogland, Derrick W. Sugg, David W. Foltz

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75 Scopus citations


Considerable controversy surrounds the importance of inbreeding in natural populations. The rate of natural inbreeding and the influences of behavioral mechanisms that serve to promote or minimize inbreeding (e.g., philopatry vs. dispersal) are poorly understood. We studied inbreeding and social structuring of a population of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) to assess the influence of dispersal and mating behavior on patterns of genetic variation. We examined 15 years of data on prairie dogs, including survival and reproduction, social behavior, pedigrees, and allozyme alleles. Pedigrees revealed mean inbreeding coefficients (F) of 1-2%. A breeding-group model that incorporated details of prairie dog behavior and demography was used to estimate values of fixation indices (F-statistics). Model predictions were consistent with the minimization of inbreeding within breeding groups ('coteries.' asymptotic F(IL) = -0.18) and random mating within the subpopulation ('colony,' asymptotic F(1S) = 0.00). Estimates from pedigrees (mean F(1L) = -0.23, mean F(IS) = 0.00) and allozyme data (mean F(IL) = -0.21, mean F(1S) = -0.01) were consistent with predictions of the model. The breeding-group model, pedigrees, and allozyme data showed remarkably congruent results, and indicated strong genetic structuring within the colony (F(IS) = 0.16, 0.19, and 0.17, respectively). We concluded that although inbreeding occurred in the colony, the rate of inbreeding was strongly minimized at the level of breeding groups, but not at the subpopulation level. The behavioral mechanisms most important to the minimization of inbreeding appeared to be patterns of male-biased dispersal of both subadults and adults, associated with strong philopatry of females. Incest avoidance also occurred, associated with recognition of close kin via direct social learning within the breeding groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)970-978
Number of pages9
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Cynomys
  • F-statistics
  • Gene diversity
  • Gene dynamics
  • Inbreeding
  • Social behavior


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