Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The blue lizard spandrel and the island syndrome

Pasquale Raia1, Fabio M Guarino2, Mimmo Turano2, Gianluca Polese2, Daniela Rippa2, Francesco Carotenuto1, Daria M Monti2, Manuela Cardi2 and Domenico Fulgione2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Earth Science, University of Naples Federico II, Naples, L.go San Marcellino 10, 80138 Naples, Italy

2 Department of Structural and Functional Biology, University of Naples Federico II. Via Cinthia MSA, Naples, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:289  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-289

Published: 20 September 2010



Many small vertebrates on islands grow larger, mature later, lay smaller clutches/litters, and are less sexually dimorphic and aggressive than their mainland relatives. This set of observations is referred to as the 'Island Syndrome'. The syndrome is linked to high population density on islands. We predicted that when population density is low and/or fluctuating insular vertebrates may evolve correlated trait shifts running opposite to the Island Syndrome, which we collectively refer to as the 'reversed island syndrome' (RIS) hypothesis. On the proximate level, we hypothesized that RIS is caused by increased activity levels in melanocortin receptors. Melanocortins are postranslational products of the proopiomelanocortin gene, which controls pleiotropically pigmentation, aggressiveness, sexual activity, and food intake in vertebrates.


We tested the RIS hypothesis performing a number of behavioral, genetic, and ontogenetic tests on a blue colored insular variant of the Italian Wall lizard Podarcis sicula, living on a small island off the Southern Italian coast. The population density of this blue-colored variant was generally low and highly fluctuating from one year to the next.

In keeping with our predictions, insular lizards were more aggressive and sexually dimorphic than their mainland relatives. Insular males had wide, peramorphic heads. The growth rate of insular females was slower than growth rates of mainland individuals of both sexes, and of insular males. Consequently, size and shape dimorphism are higher on the Island. As predicted, melanocortin receptors were much more active in individuals of the insular population. Insular lizards have a higher food intake rate than mainland individuals, which is consistent with the increased activity of melanocortin receptors. This may be adaptive in an unpredictable environment such as Licosa Island. Insular lizards of both sexes spent less time basking than their mainland relatives. We suspect this is a by-product (spandrel) of the positive selection for increased activity of melanocortins receptors.


We contend that when population density is either low or fluctuating annually as a result of environmental unpredictability, it may be advantageous to individuals to behave more aggressively, to raise their rate of food intake, and allocate more energy into reproduction.