Exploring the Impacts of Major Histocompatibility Complex Variation on Fitness in the Ring-tailed Lemur (<italic>Lemur catta</italic>): Parasite Resistance, Survival, Mate Choice and Olfactory Ornamentation, and Reproduction
The threats of human encroachment and climate change are increasing and understanding the interplay between genetic diversity, fitness, and ecological variation has become critical for predicting adaptive responses and species extinction risk. Decreasing genetic diversity, owing to population decline or inbreeding, can be detrimental at the level of the individual, population, or species. One of the major challenges for evolutionary and conservation biologists is identifying the specific genetic components that influence inter-individual variation in fitness remains. As a direct link between genetic-make up and individual fitness, the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is critical to the activation of the adaptive immune system. Biologist have suggested that in addition to influencing an individual's health, variation at the MHC may be related to an individual's survival and reproductive success. Here, I test this hypothesis using two populations of ring-tailed lemurs (<italic>Lemur catta</italic>) at long-term study sites to achieve individual and population-level comparisons of MHC diversity and to integrate new genetic technology with behavioral, ecological, and environmental data. First, I address the difficulty of genotyping large populations at hypervariable genes by using next generation sequencing and suggest improvements to current methods. Second, I describe patterns of variation at the MHC-DRB 2nd exon, including diversity between alleles, individuals, and populations. Next, I examine the relationship between MHC-DRB diversity and measures of immunocompetence, parasitism, and survival within a broader framework of ecological variability across captive and wild conditions. Because the MHC is also thought to be important in mate choice and reproduction, I use an experimental approach in captive individuals to investigate possible mechanisms of MHC-based signaling through olfactory communication. Lastly, I link a female's MHC genotype to her reproductive success in the wild and explore if this relationship is altered by environmental stressors. The results of this dissertation emphasize the increasing feasibility of using genetic approaches to investigate the fitness correlates of genetic diversity non-model systems. These advances are critical for future studies and the integration of behavioral, ecological, and genetic perspectives in semi-natural and wild environments.
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