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Am Nat. 2017 Oct;190(4):451-468. doi: 10.1086/693482. Epub 2017 Aug 18.

Comparative Analyses of Phenotypic Trait Covariation within and among Populations.


Many morphological, behavioral, physiological, and life-history traits covary across the biological scales of individuals, populations, and species. However, the processes that cause traits to covary also change over these scales, challenging our ability to use patterns of trait covariance to infer process. Trait relationships are also widely assumed to have generic functional relationships with similar evolutionary potentials, and even though many different trait relationships are now identified, there is little appreciation that these may influence trait covariation and evolution in unique ways. We use a trait-performance-fitness framework to classify and organize trait relationships into three general classes, address which ones more likely generate trait covariation among individuals in a population, and review how selection shapes phenotypic covariation. We generate predictions about how trait covariance changes within and among populations as a result of trait relationships and in response to selection and consider how these can be tested with comparative data. Careful comparisons of covariation patterns can narrow the set of hypothesized processes that cause trait covariation when the form of the trait relationship and how it responds to selection yield clear predictions about patterns of trait covariation. We discuss the opportunities and limitations of comparative approaches to evaluate hypotheses about the evolutionary causes and consequences of trait covariation and highlight the importance of evaluating patterns within populations replicated in the same and in different selective environments. Explicit hypotheses about trait relationships are key to generating effective predictions about phenotype and its evolution using covariance data.


correlational selection; evolutionary constraint; fitness landscapes; genetic correlation; syndromes; trait performance

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