Extinction risk of small isolated populations in changing environments can be reduced by rapid adaptation and subsequent growth to larger, less vulnerable sizes. Whether this process, called evolutionary rescue, is able to reduce extinction risk and sustain population growth over multiple generations is largely unknown. To understand the consequences of adaptive evolution as well as maladaptive processes in small isolated populations, we subjected experimental Tribolium castaneum populations founded with 10 or 40 individuals to novel environments, one more favorable, and one resource poor, and either allowed evolution, or constrained it by replacing individuals one-for-one each generation from a non-adapting large population to minimize both adaptive and non-adaptive evolutionary processes. Replacement individuals spent one generation in the target novel environment before use to standardize effects due to the parental environment. After 8 generations we mixed a subset of surviving populations to facilitate admixture, allowing us to estimate drift load by comparing performance of mixed to unmixed groups. Evolving populations had reduced extinction rates, and increased population sizes in the first four to five generations compared to populations where evolution was constrained. Performance of evolving populations subsequently declined. Admixture restored their performance, indicating high drift load that may have overwhelmed the beneficial effects of adaptation in evolving populations. Our results indicate that evolution may quickly reduce extinction risk and increase population sizes, but suggest that relying solely on adaptation from standing genetic variation may not provide long-term benefits to small isolated populations of diploid sexual species, and that active management facilitating gene flow may be necessary for longer-term persistence.
Population size data
Population sizes, treatment variables, and extinction data for experimentally observed populations of Tribolium castaneum.
National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-0949619, DEB-0949545, DMS-1016268, DUE-1130115