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Captive breeding has been suggested as a method of conserving many threatened vertebrates, and is increasingly being proposed as a valuable conservation strategy for invertebrates. Potential genetic problems associated with ex situ conservation are widely recognized. but a further issue has received less attention: the possibility that populations will undergo adaptation to the captive environment, rendering them less well adapted to survival in the wild. We investigated six traits related to dispersal and reproduction in a culture of the large white butterfly Pieris brassicae (L.), that had been captive for c. 100-150 generations, and in recently wild stock reared simultaneously in a common environment. Individuals in the captive culture were heavier, with smaller wings and lower wing aspect ratios. Females from the captive culture laid many more eggs in cage experiments, and had higher ovary mass at the time of peak egg production. These differences are consistent with adaptation to captive conditions. Over time, similar evolutionary changes may affect invertebrates reared in ex situ conservation programmes, decreasing the likelihood that these species can be re-established in the wild. Although the timescale over which most vertebrates are likely to adapt to captivity is longer, and the traits involved will be different, invertebrates like P. brassicae may also provide a model of potential problems in long-term ex situ conservation programmes for both invertebrates and vertebrates. We suggest that measures to reduce or slow adaptation to captivity should be introduced alongside measures to reduce deleterious genetic effects in captive populations.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Insect Conservation

Publication Date





55 - 63