April 7, 2009

Inbreeding led to deformed bones in wolves

Scientists say they've found extreme inbreeding of an isolated wolf population at a U.S. island national park has resulted in genetically deformed bones.

Michigan Technological University researchers say they've collected the first scientific evidence that inbreeding caused the genetic deterioration of the bones of the wolves at Isle Royale National Park in northern Lake Superior.

Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich of Michigan Tech and their colleagues -- Jannikke Raikkonen of the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Michael Nelson at Michigan State University -- found 58 percent of the wolves on Isle Royale exhibit a congenital malformation in the lumbosacral region or lower back, and 33 percent display a specific deformity, lumbosacral transitional vertebrae.

Until recently, we didn't know if the inbreeding was causing problems for the wolves, said Vucetich. There is now good reason to think that Isle Royale wolves have been suffering from genetic deterioration due to inbreeding.

Up to now, wildlife management agencies in the U.S. and Scandinavia have cited the Isle Royale wolves as proof that small wolf populations can avoid genetic deterioration and remain viable, the scientists said.

Our study removes one more example that some use to downplay the consequences of genetic deterioration, Raikkonen said.

The research appears in the journal Biological Conservation.