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Mol Ecol. 2011 Apr;20(8):1675-88. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05026.x. Epub 2011 Feb 24.

Untangling individual variation in natural populations: ecological, genetic and epigenetic correlates of long-term inequality in herbivory.

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Estación Biológica de Doñana, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Avenida Américo Vespucio s/n, Isla de La Cartuja, Sevilla 41092, Spain.


Individual variation in ecologically important features of organisms is a crucial element in ecology and evolution, yet disentangling its underlying causes is difficult in natural populations. We applied a genomic scan approach using amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) markers to quantify the genetic basis of long-term individual differences in herbivory by mammals at a wild population of the violet Viola cazorlensis monitored for two decades. In addition, methylation-sensitive amplified polymorphism (MSAP) analyses were used to investigate the association between browsing damage and epigenetic characteristics of individuals, an aspect that has been not previously explored for any wild plant. Structural equation modelling was used to identify likely causal structures linking genotypes, epigenotypes and herbivory. Individuals of V. cazorlensis differed widely in the incidence of browsing mammals over the 20-year study period. Six AFLP markers (1.6% of total) were significantly related to herbivory, accounting altogether for 44% of population-wide variance in herbivory levels. MSAP analyses revealed considerable epigenetic variation among individuals, and differential browsing damage was significantly related to variation in multilocus epigenotypes. In addition, variation across plants in epigenetic characteristics was related to variation in several herbivory-related AFLP markers. Statistical comparison of alternative causal models suggested that individual differences in herbivory are the outcome of a complex causal structure where genotypes and epigenotypes are interconnected and have direct and indirect effects on herbivory. Insofar as methylation states of MSAP markers influential on herbivory are transgenerationally heritable, herbivore-driven evolutionary changes at the study population will involve correlated changes in genotypic and epigenotypic distributions.

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