Species survival is critically dependent on reproductive performance, a complex physiological process under rigorous genetic control. Classical studies of inbreeding in laboratory animals and livestock have shown that increased homozygosity can adversely affect spermatogenesis, ovulation and perinatal mortality and morbidity1-3. For wild populations, the consequences of inbreeding depression have not been examined intensively, although our recent studies of the African cheetah revealed a striking degree of genetic uniformity4,5 combined with an extremely high incidence of structurally abnormal spermatozoa (>70%) in captive6 as well as free-ranging7 males. In this study, we report definitive evidence that the reproductive function of free-ranging mammals can be impaired as a result of demographic contraction followed by inbreeding. In an examination of three distinct lion populations (two from the Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa and a third descended from lions in the Gir Forest of western India), a direct correlation was observed between genetic variability and two physiological traits, incidence of abnormal sperm and circulating testosterone, a critical hormone for spermatogenesis.
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