Limited diversity associated with duplicated class II MHC-DRB genes in the red squirrel population in the United Kingdom compared with continental Europe.
The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) population in the United Kingdom has declined over the last century and is now on the UK endangered species list. This is the result of competition from the eastern grey squirrel (S. carolinensis) which was introduced in the 19th century. However, recent evidence suggests that the rate of population decline is enhanced by squirrelpox disease, caused by a viral infection carried asymptomatically by grey squirrels but to which red squirrels are highly susceptible. Population genetic diversity provides some resilience to rapidly evolving or exotic pathogens. There is currently no data on genetic diversity of extant UK squirrel populations with respect to genes involved in disease resistance. Diversity is highest at loci involved in the immune response including genes clustered within the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Using the class II DRB locus as a marker for diversity across the MHC region we genotyped 110 red squirrels from locations in the UK and continental Europe. Twenty-four Scvu-DRB alleles at two functional loci; Scvu-DRB1 and Scvu-DRB2, were identified. High levels of diversity were identified at both loci in the continental populations. In contrast, no diversity was observed at the Scvu-DRB2 locus in the mainland UK population while a high level of homozygosity was observed at the Scvu-DRB1 locus. The red squirrel population in the UK appears to lack the extensive MHC diversity associated with continental populations, a feature which may have contributed to their rapid decline.