Single large or several small? Population fragmentation in the captive management of endangered species

Sienna H. Margan, Roderick K. Nurthen, Margaret E. Montgomery, Lynn M. Woodworth, Edwin H. Lowe, David A. Briscoe, Richard Frankham*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    70 Citations (Scopus)


    Captive populations of endangered species are typically maintained effectively as single random-mating populations by translocating individuals between institutions. Genetic, disease, and cost considerations, however, suggest that this may not be the optimal management strategy. Genetic theory predicts that a pooled population derived from several small isolated populations will have greater genetic diversity, less inbreeding, and less genetic adaptation to captivity than a single large population of equivalent total size, provided there are no population extinctions. These predictions were tested using populations of Dmsophila with effective size comparisons of 50 vs. 2 × 25; 100 vs. 2 × 50 vs. 4 × 25, and 500 vs. 2 × 250 vs. 4 × 100 + 2 × 50 vs. 8 × 25 + 6 × 50. Populations were maintained at the indicated sizes as separate pedigreed populations for 50 generations. The several small treatments were subsequently pooled and maintained for eight to 10 generations prior to determination of fitness and evolutionary potential. Several small populations (pooled), when compared to single large populations of equivalent total size, were found to have lower average inbreeding coefficients, significantly higher reproductive fitness under competitive conditions, similar fitness under benign captive conditions, higher genetic diversity, and equivalent evolutionary potential. Trends favored the several small (pooled) populations in all comparisons at population sizes of 50 and 100. We recommend that endangered species in captivity be maintained as several small populations, with occasional exchange of genetic material. This has genetic benefits over current management both in captivity and especially for reintroductions, as well as reducing translocation costs and risks of disease transfer.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)467-480
    Number of pages14
    JournalZoo Biology
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 1998


    • disease
    • genetic adaptation
    • genetic diversity
    • inbreeding
    • reintroduction
    • reproductive fitness


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