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What is the Founder Effect?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The founder effect is a dramatic decrease in genetic diversity caused through the formation of a small colony of individuals which remains isolated. This contributes to genetic drift, which causes certain genetic traits to vanish or become more abundant. Several human populations provide interesting sources of study for geneticists interested in the founder effect, as do numerous animal populations.

This concept was first widely discussed in 1952, when Ernst Mayr built on earlier theoretical work by others to come up with the idea of the founder effect. Mayr showed how small isolated populations can start to diverge from their larger parent populations, sometimes ultimately yielding a unique species. Since then, others have built on his work dramatically, performing long term studies of isolated communities and using advanced tools to analyze the genomes of organisms in these populations.

In a classic example of the founder effect, a small group splits off from a larger population, much as the Amish did during the Reformation. When a small group remains endogamous, meaning that people marry within the community, it can create a situation in which genetic diversity is extremely limited, because no new members are welcomed into the community. This effect is common among isolated religious communities and island populations, both of whom tend to be cut off from the larger population.

One effect of this phenomenon is the tendency for certain genetic traits to become concentrated. Because the founding community is so small, if one person carries a genetic mutation, that mutation can become amplified in the community. For example, the Amish have a much higher incidence of hexadactyly than the general population. The problems attributed to inbreeding are an example of the founder effect.

If a founder population is left alone long enough, it can diverge so radically from the parent population that it becomes an entirely new species. Charles Darwin noted this when he explored the animals of the Galapagos Islands, although he didn't understand the cause. Many people agree that the founder effect can be extremely problematic, because decreased genetic diversity can lead to an increase in the manifestation of genetic mutations. This is of special concern to biologists who are trying to save endangered species, as they must breed small starter populations in a responsible way to minimize this effect. This is one reason why conservation parks constantly trade animals.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon270803 — On May 23, 2012

Six toe cats in Boston and Nova Scotia are a classic example.

By anon89519 — On Jun 10, 2010

take a look at populations of Atlantic sturgeon in the James River. Matt Balazik is the scientist working on this. I'm sure he is willing to share data with you.

By anon37723 — On Jul 21, 2009

im 13 and i will be starting a 3 year study in the founder effect to be finished in my senior year of high school. i would like to know what i could use as the proof of it. like what can be measured considering that i cannot sequence genes or anything like that

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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