Heritability of head size in a hunted large carnivore, the brown bear (Ursus arctos)
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionEvolutionary Applications. 2019, 12 (6), 1124-1135. 10.1111/eva.12786
Wild animal populations experience selection pressures from both natural and anthropogenic sources. The availability of extensive pedigrees is increasing along with our ability to quantify the heritability and evolvability of phenotypic traits and thus the speed and potential for evolutionary change in wild populations. The environment may also affect gene expressions in individuals, which may in turn affect the potential of phenotypic traits to respond to selection. Knowledge about the relationship between the genetic and environmental components of phenotypic variation is particularly relevant, given ongoing anthropogenically driven global change. Using a quantitative genetic mixed model, we disentangled the genetic and environmental components of phenotypic variance in a large carnivore, the brown bear (Ursus arctos). We combined a pedigree covering ~1,500 individual bears over seven generations with location data from 413 bears, as well as data on bear density, habitat characteristics, and climatic conditions. We found a narrow‐sense heritability of 0.24 (95% CrI: 0.06–0.38) for brown bear head size, showing that the trait can respond to selection at a moderate speed. The environment contributed substantially to phenotypic variation, and we partitioned this into birth year (5.9%), nonadditive among‐individual genetic (15.0%), and residual (50.4%) environmental effects. Brown bear head circumference showed an evolvability of 0.2%, which can generate large changes in the trait mean over some hundreds of generations. Our study is among the first to quantify heritability of a trait in a hunted large carnivore population. Such knowledge about the degree to which species experiencing hunting can respond to selection is crucial for conservation and to make informed management decisions. We show that including important environmental variables when analyzing heritability is key to understanding the dynamics of the evolutionary potential of phenotypic traits.