Quantitative genetics of extreme insular dwarfing: The case of red deer on Jersey

Diniz-Filho et al. (2021) – Journal of Biogeography

The Island Rule—that is, the tendency for body size to decrease in large mammals and increase in small mammals on islands has been commonly evaluated through macroecological or macroevolutionary, pattern-orientated approaches, which generally fail to model the microevolutionary processes driving either dwarfing or gigantism. Here, we seek to identify which microevolutionary process could have driven extreme insular dwarfism in the extinct dwarf red deer (Cervus elaphus) population on the island of Jersey, UK (Channel Islands). We applied an individual-based quantitative genetics model parameterized with red deer life-history data to study the evolution of dwarfism in Jersey’s deer, considering variations in island area and isolation through time due to sea-level changes. The body size of red deer on Jersey decreased fast early on, due to phenotypic plasticity, then kept decreasing almost linearly over time down to the actual
body size of the Jersey deer (36 kg on average). Only 1% of 10,000 replicates failed to reach that size in our simulations. The distribution of time to adaptation in these simulations was right-skewed, with a median of 395 generations (equivalent to roughly 4 kyr), with complete dwarfism effectively occurring in less than 6 kyr 84.6% of times. About 72% of the variation in the time to adaptation between simulations was collectively explained by higher mutational variance, the number of immigrants from the continent after isolation, available genetic variance, heritability, and phenotypic plasticity. The extreme dwarfing of red deer on Jersey is an expected outcome of high mutational variance, high immigration rate, a wide adaptive landscape, low levels of inbreeding, and high phenotypic plasticity (in the early phase of dwarfing), all occurring within a time window of around 6 kyr. Our model reveals how extreme dwarfism is a plausible outcome of common, well-known evolutionary processes.