With a small effective population size, random genetic drift is more important than selection in determining the fate of new alleles. Small populations therefore accumulate deleterious mutations. Left unchecked, the effect of these fixed alleles is to reduce the reproductive capacity of a species, eventually to the point of extinction. New beneficial mutations, if fixed by selection, can restore some of this lost fitness. This paper derives the overall change in fitness due to fixation of new deleterious and beneficial alleles, as a function of the distribution of effects of new mutations and the effective population size. There is a critical effective size below which a population will on average decline in fitness, but above which beneficial mutations allow the population to persist. With reasonable estimates of the relevant parameters, this critical effective size is likely to be a few hundred. Furthermore, sexual selection can act to reduce the fixation probability of deleterious new mutations and increase the probability of fixing new beneficial mutations. Sexual selection can therefore reduce the risk of extinction of small populations.
Editor: A. Caballero