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Open Access Research article

Climate change and recent genetic flux in populations of Drosophila robusta

Max Levitan1* and William J Etges2

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology and Department of Human Genetics, Box 1007, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, 1 Gustave L. Levy Place, New York, NY 10029, USA

2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2005, 5:4  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-5-4

Published: 6 January 2005



Studied since the early 1940's, chromosomal polymorphisms in the deciduous woods species Drosophila robusta have been characterized by well-defined latitudinal, longitudinal, and elevational clines, but – until at least ten years ago – stable, local population frequencies. Recent biogeographical analyses indicate that D. robusta invaded North America from southeast Asia and has persisted in eastern temperate forests for at least 20–25 my without speciating. The abundant chromosome polymorphisms found across the range of D. robusta are thus likely to be relatively ancient, having accumulated over many well known climatic cycles in North America. Sufficient long-term data are now available such that we can now gauge the rate of these evolutionary changes in natural populations due to environmental change.


Recent local collections have revealed significant changes in the frequencies of several chromosomal forms. New data presented here extend the range of these changes to six states, three in the northeastern United States and three west of the Mississippi River. These data reinforce recent directional changes in which the frequencies of three gene arrangements have reached percentage levels typical of distant southern populations consistent with regional climatic changes. Another gene arrangement has been steadily decreasing in frequency at a number of the sites studied. Meteorological records from 1945 to 2003 indicate temperature increases at all study sites, particularly average minimum air temperatures.


Observation of parallel genetic flux suggests that these long-term temporal frequency shifts in widely disparate populations of D. robusta are evolutionary responses to environmental change. Since these chromosomes are known to be sensitive to ambient temperature, regional climatic shifts associated with global warming are likely to be responsible.