The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) plays a crucial role in the immune system, and in some species, it is a target by which individuals choose mates to optimize the fitness of their offspring, potentially mediated by olfactory cues. Under the genetic compatibility hypothesis, individuals are predicted to choose mates with compatible MHC alleles, to increase the fitness of their offspring. Studies of MHC-based mate choice in wild mammals are under-represented currently, and few investigate more than one class of MHC genes. We investigated mate choice based on the compatibility of MHC class I and II genes in a wild population of European badgers (Meles meles). We also investigated mate choice based on microsatellite-derived pairwise relatedness, to attempt to distinguish MHC-specific effects from genomewide effects. We found MHC-assortative mating, based on MHC class II, but not class I genes. Parent pairs had smaller MHC class II DRB amino acid distances and smaller functional distances than expected from random pairings. When we separated the analyses into within-group and neighbouring-group parent pairs, only neighbouring-group pairs showed MHC-assortative mating, due to similarity at MHC class II loci. Our randomizations showed no evidence of genomewide-based inbreeding, based on 35 microsatellite loci; MHC class II similarity was therefore the apparent target of mate choice. We propose that MHC-assortative mate choice may be a local adaptation to endemic pathogens, and this assortative mate choice may have contributed to the low MHC genetic diversity in this population.
HFCs (heterozygosity-fitness correlations) measure the direct relationship between an individual's genetic diversity and fitness. The effects of parental heterozygosity and the environment on HFCs are currently under-researched. We investigated these in a high-density U.K. population of European badgers (Meles meles), using a multimodel capture-mark-recapture framework and 35 microsatellite loci. We detected interannual variation in first-year, but not adult, survival probability. Adult females had higher annual survival probabilities than adult males. Cubs with more heterozygous fathers had higher first-year survival, but only in wetter summers; there was no relationship with individual or maternal heterozygosity. Moist soil conditions enhance badger food supply (earthworms), improving survival. In dryer years, higher indiscriminate mortality rates appear to mask differential heterozygosity-related survival effects. This paternal interaction was significant in the most supported model; however, the model-averaged estimate had a relative importance of 0.50 and overlapped zero slightly. First-year survival probabilities were not correlated with the inbreeding coefficient (f); however, small sample sizes limited the power to detect inbreeding depression. Correlations between individual heterozygosity and inbreeding were weak, in line with published meta-analyses showing that HFCs tend to be weak. We found support for general rather than local heterozygosity effects on first-year survival probability, and g2 indicated that our markers had power to detect inbreeding. We emphasize the importance of assessing how environmental stressors can influence the magnitude and direction of HFCs and of considering how parental genetic diversity can affect fitness-related traits, which could play an important role in the evolution of mate choice.
Extra-group paternity (EGP) occurs commonly among group-living mammals and plays an important role in mating systems and the dynamics of sexual selection; however, socio-ecological and genetic correlates of EGP have been underexplored. We use 23 years of demographic and genetic data from a high-density European badger (Meles meles) population, to investigate the relationship between the rate of EGP in litters and mate availability, mate incompatibility and mate quality (heterozygosity). Relatedness between within-group assigned mothers and candidate fathers had a negative quadratic effect on EGP, whereas the number of neighbouring-group candidate fathers had a linear positive effect. We detected no effect of mean or maximum heterozygosity of within-group candidate fathers on EGP. Consequently, EGP was associated primarily with mate availability, subject to within-group genetic effects, potentially to mitigate mate incompatibility and inbreeding. In badgers, cryptic female choice, facilitated by superfecundation, superfoetation and delayed implantation, prevents males from monopolizing within-group females. This resonates with a meta-analysis in group-living mammals, which proposed that higher rates of EGP occur when within-group males cannot monopolize within-group females. In contrast to the positive meta-analytic association, however, we found that EGP associated negatively with the number of within-group assigned mothers and the number of within-group candidate fathers; potentially a strategy to counter within-group males committing infanticide. The relationship between the rate of EGP and socio-ecological or genetic factors can therefore be intricate, and the potential for cryptic female choice must be accounted for in comparative studies.
The innate immune system provides the primary vertebrate defence system against pathogen invasion, but it is energetically costly and can have immune pathological effects. A previous study in sticklebacks found that intermediate major histocompatibility complex (MHC) diversity correlated with a lower leukocyte coping capacity (LCC), compared to individuals with fewer, or many, MHC alleles. The organization of the MHC genes in mammals, however, differs to the highly duplicated MHC genes in sticklebacks by having far fewer loci. Using European badgers (Meles meles), we therefore investigated whether innate immune activity, estimated functionally as the ability of an individual's leukocytes to produce a respiratory burst, was influenced by MHC diversity. We also investigated whether LCC was influenced by factors such as age-class, sex, body condition, season, year, neutrophil and lymphocyte counts, and intensity of infection with five different pathogens. We found that LCC was not associated with specific MHC haplotypes, MHC alleles, or MHC diversity, indicating that the innate immune system did not compensate for the adaptive immune system even when there were susceptible MHC alleles/haplotypes, or when the MHC diversity was low. We also identified a seasonal and annual variation of LCC. This temporal variation of innate immunity was potentially due to physiological trade-offs or temporal variation in pathogen infections. The innate immunity, estimated as LCC, does not compensate for MHC diversity suggests that the immune system may function differently between vertebrates with different MHC organizations, with implications for the evolution of immune systems in different taxa.