Low genetic diversity threatens imminent extinction for the Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis)
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Meadow vipers (Vipera ursinii) are small venomous snakes whose range in Hungary has been greatly fragmented by anthropogenic habitat disturbance (especially, agriculture). We obtained DNA from a total of eight Hungarian snakes. Genetic variability at the major histocompatibility (Mhc) class I loci was much lower for these snakes than for specimens from two large Ukrainian populations. Within two Hungarian populations for which we had multiple individuals, band-sharing indices were 100 and 84.6% (versus 63.3 and 57% for the Ukraine populations). The Ukrainian snakes also displayed more RFLP fragments than the Hungarian vipers (mean 13.7 versus 9.0, respectively). In combination with reports of birth deformities, chromosomal abnormalities and low juvenile survival, these data strongly suggest that the Hungarian vipers are experiencing inbreeding depression. Genetic diversity is still present in the Hungarian vipers but among rather than within populations. Given the very low numbers of animals, the only feasible strategy to increase the genetic diversity and to save the Hungarian vipers from extinction is to implement a captive breeding program based on genetically screened animals. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.