Population viability analyses for a number of endangered species have incorporated a metapopulation approach. The risk assessments of these viability analyses have indicated that some extant populations should be subdivided into numerous subgroups with exchange of individuals among them in order to reduce the chance of catastrophic loss of the species. However, routine application of a policy of extensive subdivision may have detrimental consequences for certain endangered species. We examine the Puerto Rican Parrot as a case history in which this policy is ill-advised. In 1989, a population viability analysis was conducted for the parrot. The document recommended subdivision of the existing small captive flock into three groups. One of these captive flocks would consist of individuals transferred to a multi-species facility in the continental United States. Subsequently, individuals from this facility would be exchanged with the insular captive population(s) and the relict wild flock. For two reasons, implementation of this recommendation might have led to serious repercussions. First, this parrot, like many endangered species, has gone through a genetic bottleneck and may have a heightened susceptibility to disease. Multi-species facilities are a high-risk environment favoring the transmission of pathogens, especially when the facilities are located outside the natural ranges of a particular species. Second, the parrot is a K-selected species for which mate selection is idiosyncratic. This type of species often proves difficult to breed in captivity in small groups. Part of the problem in mate selection may be reduced by a policy allowing frequent transfers of individuals among facilities, but such movements increase the chances of spreading disease in the metapopulation. Thus, population viability analyses need to acknowledge that proliferation of captive subgroups accompanied by exchanges of individuals can in themselves carry substantial risks that must be weighed against the presumed benefits of subdivision.
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Puerto Rican parrots and potential limitations of the metapopulation approach to species conservation