Lonsinger, R. C., J. R. Adams, and L. P. Waits. 2018. Evaluating effective population size and genetic diversity of a declining kit fox population using contemporary and historical specimens. Ecology and Evolution 8:12011–12021. doi: 10.1002/ece3.4660.
Loss of genetic diversity has serious conservation consequences (e.g., loss of adaptive potential, reduced population viability), but is difficult to evaluate without developing long‐term, multigenerational datasets. Alternatively, historical samples can provide insights into changes in genetic diversity and effective population size (Ne). Kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) are a species of conservation concern across much of their range. In western Utah, kit fox abundance has declined precipitously from historical levels, causing concern about population persistence. We analyzed genetic samples from museum specimens and contemporary scats to evaluate temporal changes in (a) genetic diversity and (b) Ne for kit foxes in western Utah, and (c) discuss our findings with respect to population risk and conservation. The Ne of kit foxes in western Utah has decreased substantially. When compared to established conservation thresholds for Ne (e.g., the 50/500 rule), observed levels suggest the population may be at risk of inbreeding depression and local extinction. In contrast, we found no significant decrease in genetic diversity associated with declining Ne. We detected evidence of low levels of immigration into the population and suspect genetic diversity may have been maintained by this previously undescribed gene flow from adjacent populations. Low or intermittent immigration may serve to temper the potential short‐term negative consequences of low Ne. We recommend that kit fox conservation efforts focus on evaluating and maintaining landscape connectivity. We demonstrate how historical specimens can provide a baseline of comparison for contemporary populations, highlighting the importance of natural history collections to conservation during a period of declining funding and support.