Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Evolutionary Biology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Increasing melanism along a latitudinal gradient in a widespread amphibian: local adaptation, ontogenic or environmental plasticity?

Jussi S Alho1*, Gábor Herczeg1, Fredrik Söderman2, Anssi Laurila2, K Ingemar Jönsson34 and Juha Merilä1

Author Affiliations

1 Ecological Genetics Research Unit, Department of Biosciences, PO Box 65, FI-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland

2 Population and Conservation Biology, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18D, SE-75236 Uppsala, Sweden

3 School of Teacher Education, Kristianstad University, SE-29188 Kristianstad, Sweden

4 Department of Genetics, Microbiology & Toxicology, Stockholm University, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:317  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-317

Published: 21 October 2010

Abstract

Background

The thermal benefits of melanism in ectothermic animals are widely recognized, but relatively little is known about population differentiation in the degree of melanism along thermal gradients, and the relative contributions of genetic vs. environmental components into the level of melanism expressed. We investigated variation in the degree of melanism in the common frog (Rana temporaria; an active heliotherm thermoregulator) by comparing the degree of melanism (i) among twelve populations spanning over 1500 km long latitudinal gradient across the Scandinavian Peninsula and (ii) between two populations from latitudinal extremes subjected to larval temperature treatments in a common garden experiment.

Results

We found that the degree of melanism increased steeply in the wild as a function of latitude. Comparison of the degree of population differentiation in melanism (PST) and neutral marker loci (FST) revealed that the PST > FST, indicating that the differences cannot be explained by random genetic drift alone. However, the latitudinal trend observed in the wild was not present in the common garden data, suggesting that the cline in nature is not attributable to direct genetic differences.

Conclusions

As straightforward local adaptation can be ruled out, the observed trend is likely to result from environment-driven phenotypic plasticity or ontogenetic plasticity coupled with population differences in age structure. In general, our results provide an example how phenotypic plasticity or even plain ontogeny can drive latitudinal clines and result in patterns perfectly matching the genetic differences expected under adaptive hypotheses.