The Common hamster (Cricetus cricetus) has declined by more than 99% in the westernmost part of its range in Belgium, the Netherlands and the adjacent German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia (BNN region) during recent decades. Various conservation schemes are ongoing to support the remaining populations, including restoration of the habitat, captive breeding and reintroductions. One of the factors determining the success of conservation actions is the genetic constitution of the remaining populations. We therefore measured the genetic variation in current BNN hamster populations and compared the outcome with the genetic variation in museum samples from the historical, non-fragmented, population. Most of the current populations have lost the majority of their rare alleles and individual animals have become nearly homozygous. Since different alleles became fixed in different populations, this has resulted in strong genetic differentiation between current populations and reflects the strength of drift and inbreeding processes in small and isolated populations. Despite this differentiation, the total gene diversity of these small populations combined is not much less than that of the historical population. Hence, the main genetic difference between historical and present is not in terms of total genetic variation or number of alleles in the BNN region, but in the distribution of this variation over the populations.
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