Founder events, isolation, and inbreeding: Intercontinental genetic structure of the domestic ferret

Kyle D. Gustafson, Michelle Hawkins, Tracy L. Drazenovich, Robert Church, Susan A. Brown, Holly B Ernest

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Domestication and breeding for human-desired morphological traits can reduce population genetic diversity via founder events and artificial selection, resulting in inbreeding depression and genetic disorders. The ferret (Mustela putorius furo) was domesticated from European polecats (M. putorius), transported to multiple continents, and has been artificially selected for several traits. The ferret is now a common pet, a laboratory model organism, and feral ferrets can impact native biodiversity. We hypothesized global ferret trade resulted in distinct international genetic clusters and that ferrets transported to other continents would have lower genetic diversity than ferrets from Europe because of extreme founder events and no hybridization with wild polecats or genetically diverse ferrets. To assess these hypotheses, we genotyped 765 ferrets at 31 microsatellites from 11 countries among the continents of North America, Europe, and Australia and estimated population structure and genetic diversity. Fifteen M. putorius were genotyped for comparison. Our study indicated ferrets exhibit geographically distinct clusters and highlights the low genetic variation in certain countries. Australian and North American clusters have the lowest genetic diversities and highest inbreeding metrics whereas the United Kingdom (UK) cluster exhibited intermediate genetic diversity. Non-UK European ferrets had high genetic diversity, possibly a result of introgression with wild polecats. Notably, Hungarian ferrets had the highest genetic diversity and Hungary is the only country sampled with two wild polecat species. Our research has broad social, economic, and biomedical importance. Ferret owners and veterinarians should be made aware of potential inbreeding depression. Breeders in North America and Australia would benefit by incorporating genetically diverse ferrets from mainland Europe. Laboratories using ferrets as biomedical organisms should consider diversifying their genetic stock and incorporating genetic information into bioassays. These results also have forensic applications for conserving the genetics of wild polecat species and for identifying and managing sources of feral ferrets causing ecosystem damage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)694-704
Number of pages11
JournalEvolutionary Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018


  • artificial selection
  • Australia
  • Europe
  • Mustela putorius
  • Mustela putorius furo
  • New Zealand
  • North America

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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