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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Pigmentation in Drosophila melanogaster reaches its maximum in Ethiopia and correlates most strongly with ultra-violet radiation in sub-Saharan Africa

Héloïse Bastide, Amir Yassin, Evan J Johanning and John E Pool*

Author Affiliations

Laboratory of Genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:179  doi:10.1186/s12862-014-0179-y

Published: 13 August 2014



Pigmentation has a long history of investigation in evolutionary biology. In Drosophila melanogaster, latitudinal and altitudinal clines have been found but their underlying causes remain unclear. Moreover, most studies were conducted on cosmopolitan populations which have a relatively low level of genetic structure and diversity compared to sub-Saharan African populations. We investigated: 1) the correlation between pigmentation traits within and between the thorax and the fourth abdominal segment, and 2) their associations with different geographical and ecological variables, using 710 lines belonging to 30 sub-Saharan and cosmopolitan populations.


Pigmentation clines substantially differed between sub-Saharan and cosmopolitan populations. While positive correlations with latitude have previously been described in Europe, India and Australia, in agreement with Bogert's rule or the thermal melanism hypothesis, we found a significant negative correlation in Africa. This correlation persisted even after correction for altitude, which in its turn showed a positive correlation with pigmentation independently from latitude. More importantly, we found that thoracic pigmentation reaches its maximal values in this species in high-altitude populations of Ethiopia (1,600-3,100 m). Ethiopian flies have a diffuse wide thoracic trident making the mesonotum and the head almost black, a phenotype that is absent from all other sub-Saharan or cosmopolitan populations including high-altitude flies from Peru (~3,400 m). Ecological analyses indicated that the variable most predictive of pigmentation in Africa, especially for the thorax, was ultra-violet (UV) intensity, consistent with the so-called Gloger's rule invoking a role of melanin in UV protection.


Our data suggest that different environmental factors may shape clinal variation in tropical and temperate regions, and may lead to the evolution of different degrees of melanism in different high altitude populations in the tropics.

Melanism; Drosophila; Thoracic trident; Bogert’s rule; Gloger's rule; Adaptation; UV resistance