Targeted gene flow and rapid adaptation in an endangered marsupial
Targeted gene flow is an emerging conservation strategy. It involves translocating individuals with favorable genes to areas where they will have a conservation benefit. The applications for targeted gene flow are wide‐ranging but include preadapting native species to the arrival of invasive species. The endangered carnivorous marsupial, the northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), has declined rapidly since the introduction of the cane toad (Rhinella marina), which fatally poisons quolls that attack them. There are, however, a few remaining toad‐invaded quoll populations in which the quolls survive because they know not to eat cane toads. It is this toad‐smart behavior we hope to promote through targeted gene flow. For targeted gene flow to be feasible, however, toad‐smart behavior must have a genetic basis. To assess this, we used a common garden experiment, comparing offspring from toad‐exposed and toad‐naïve parents raised in identical environments, to determine whether toad‐smart behavior is heritable. Offspring from toad‐exposed populations were substantially less likely to eat toads than those with toad‐naïve parents. Hybrid offspring showed similar responses to quolls with 2 toad‐exposed parents, indicating the trait may be dominant. Together, these results suggest a heritable trait and rapid adaptive response in a small number of toad‐exposed populations. Although questions remain about outbreeding depression, our results are encouraging for targeted gene flow. It should be possible to introduce toad‐smart behavior into soon to be affected quoll populations.
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