Long term vs. short term impact of founder relatedness on gene diversity and inbreeding within the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) of the red panda (Ailurus f. fulgens)

  • Florian Schäfer Natural History Museum of Erfurt, Germany & Conservation Genetics Group at Senckenberg Research Institute, Gelnhausen, Germany
  • Tobias Erik Reiners Conservation Genetics Group at Senckenberg Research Institute, Gelnhausen, Germany


Traditionally, studbooks have been used as the major tool for the scientific management of ex-situ populations organised in breeding programmes. Well documented pedigree information enables managers to sufficiently monitor population size, demographic stability and the level of genetic diversity. However, breeding programes can only maintain the genetic information which is brought into captivity by wild caught founder animals. In most studbooks little is known about those individuals. This is also true for the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), a charismatic but threatened flagship species. Conservation breeding of this remarkable mammal species started in the early 1960s and is nowadays coordinated through a Global Species Management Plan (GSMP). In Europe the Endangered Species Programme (EEP) forms the biggest regional breeding group of red pandas (subspecies A. f. fulgens). Little is known about the true origin of the 23 founders of the EEP and how their unknown relationships may affect their living descendants now and in the future. Studbook data on 1350 individuals were analysed for different assumptions about founder relationships and compared with each other. We provide studbook-based evidence that the annual change in genetic parameters (gene diversity and mean inbreeding) are not affected in long-term by the original founder relationship within strongly intermixed zoo populations managed for mean kinship. Our results point out the importance of good genetic management in the early years of breeding programmes. These early years are crucial in implementing knowledge of founder relationships in the studbook, since a population becomes genetically equalised within the first decades and new information obtained later has no significant effects on subsequent genetic trends.