Dispersal as a means of inbreeding avoidance in a wild bird population.
Szulkin M., Sheldon BC.
The long-term study of animal populations facilitates detailed analysis of processes otherwise difficult to measure, and whose significance may appear only when a large sample size from many years is available for analysis. For example, inbreeding is a rare event in most natural populations, and therefore many years of data are needed to estimate its effect on fitness. A key behaviour hypothesized to play an important role in avoiding inbreeding is natal dispersal. However, the functional significance of natal dispersal with respect to inbreeding has been much debated but subject to very few empirical tests. We analysed 44 years of data from a wild great tit Parus major population involving over 5000 natal dispersal events within Wytham Woods, UK. Individuals breeding with a relative dispersed over several-fold shorter distances than those outbreeding; within the class of inbreeding birds, increased inbreeding was associated with reduced dispersal distance, for both males and females. This led to a 3.4-fold increase (2.3-5, 95% CI) in the likelihood of close (f=0.25) inbreeding relative to the population average when individuals dispersed less than 200m. In the light of our results, and published evidence showing little support for active inbreeding avoidance in vertebrates, we suggest that dispersal should be considered as a mechanism of prime importance for inbreeding avoidance in wild populations.