Forstmeier W, Ellegren H
Proc. Biol. Sci. 277 (1694) 2655-2660 [2010-09-07; online 2010-05-07]
Hatching failure is a surprisingly common phenomenon given that natural selection constantly works against it. In birds, an average of about 10 per cent of eggs across species fail to hatch, often owing to the death of embryos. While embryo mortality owing to inbreeding is both well-documented and evolutionarily plausible, this is not true for other sources of mortality. In fact, the basis for hatching failure in natural populations remains largely unexplained. Here, we demonstrate that embryo mortality in captive zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) follows from chromosomal aneuploidy or polyploidy. As part of microsatellite genotyping of a captive breeding population, we found 12 individuals (3.6%) with three alleles among 331 embryos that had died during development, while there were no such cases observed among 1210 adult birds. Subsequent genotyping of 1920 single nucleotide polymorphism markers distributed across the genome in birds with three alleles at microsatellite loci, and in greater than 1000 normal birds, revealed that the aberrant karyotypes involved cases of both trisomies and triploidy. Cases of both maternally and paternally inherited trisomies resulted from non-disjunction during meiosis. Maternally inherited cases of triploidy were attributable to failure of meiosis leading to diploid eggs, while paternally inherited triploidy could have arisen either from diploid sperm or from dispermy. Our initial microsatellite screening set only had the power to detect less than 10 per cent of trisomies and by extrapolation, our data therefore tentatively suggest that trisomy might be a major cause of embryo mortality in zebra finches.