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PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e32648. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032648. Epub 2012 Feb 27.

Biogeographical survey identifies consistent alternative physiological optima and a minor role for environmental drivers in maintaining a polymorphism.

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  • 1Evolutionary Ecology Group, Antwerp University, Antwerp, Belgium.


The contribution of adaptive mechanisms in maintaining genetic polymorphisms is still debated in many systems. To understand the contribution of selective factors in maintaining polymorphism, we investigated large-scale (>1000 km) geographic variation in morph frequencies and fitness-related physiological traits in the damselfly Nehalennia irene. As fitness-related physiological traits, we investigated investment in immune function (phenoloxidase activity), energy storage and fecundity (abdomen protein and lipid content), and flight muscles (thorax protein content). In the first part of the study, our aim was to identify selective agents maintaining the large-scale spatial variation in morph frequencies. Morph frequencies varied considerably among populations, but, in contrast to expectation, in a geographically unstructured way. Furthermore, frequencies co-varied only weakly with the numerous investigated ecological parameters. This suggests that spatial frequency patterns are driven by stochastic processes, or alternatively, are consequence of highly variable and currently unidentified ecological conditions. In line with this, the investigated ecological parameters did not affect the fitness-related physiological traits differently in both morphs. In the second part of the study, we aimed at identifying trade-offs between fitness-related physiological traits that may contribute to the local maintenance of both colour morphs by defining alternative phenotypic optima, and test the spatial consistency of such trade-off patterns. The female morph with higher levels of phenoloxidase activity had a lower thorax protein content, and vice versa, suggesting a trade-off between investments in immune function and in flight muscles. This physiological trade-off was consistent across the geographical scale studied and supports widespread correlational selection, possibly driven by male harassment, favouring alternative trait combinations in both female morphs.

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