Population genetic theory predicts that in small populations, random genetic drift will fix and accumulate slightly deleterious mutations, resulting in reduced reproductive output. This genetic load due to random drift (i.e., drift load) can increase the extinction risk of small populations. We studied the relationship between genetic variability (indicator of past population size) and reproductive output in eight isolated, natural populations of the hermaphroditic snail Lymnaea stagnalis. In a common laboratory environment, snails from populations with the lowest genetic variability mature slower and have lower fecundity than snails from genetically more variable populations. This result suggests that past small population size has resulted in increased drift load, as predicted. The relationship between genetic variability and reproductive output is independent of the amount of nonrandom mating within populations. However, reproductive output and the current density of snails in the populations were not correlated. Instead, data from the natural populations suggest that trematode parasites may determine, at least in part, population densities of the snails.
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Vol. 58 • No. 4