Albinism and phenotype of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) from Chernobyl

Evolution. 2001 Oct;55(10):2097-104. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2001.tb01324.x.


The effects of mutation on phenotypic expression are supposed to be mainly deleterious because mutations disrupt the expression of genes that function relatively well under current environmental conditions. Thus, mutations are assumed to give rise to deviant phenotypes that are generally selected against. Radioactive contamination in the Chernobyl region of Ukraine is associated with a significant increase by a factor two to 10 in mutation rate in microsatellite markers of the barn swallow, Hirundo rustica. Barn swallows from Chernobyl had a temporally constant, elevated frequency of partial albinism compared to the situation before radioactive contamination and compared to birds from a control area. Albinism disproportionately affected the carotenoid-based plumage of the head, suggesting that carotenoid metabolism is particularly susceptible to the effects of radiation. Individuals with partially albinistic plumage had, on average, lower mean phenotypic values than other birds, and this was particularly the case for males. Furthermore, differences in phenotypic variation, as determined using Levene's test, were significantly larger in partial albinos compared to nonalbinos in males, but not in females, even though the null expectation would be the opposite due to the lower mean phenotypic values of partial albinos. Although small phenotypes were commonly associated with germline mutations, there was no general decrease in overall body size during the period 1991-2000, implying that small individuals were selected against. Because partial albinism is disfavored by natural selection, the effects of mutations are deleterious, giving rise to a balance between mutation and selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Albinism / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Body Constitution / genetics
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Mutation
  • Phenotype
  • Radioactive Fallout
  • Radioactive Hazard Release*
  • Recombination, Genetic
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Songbirds / anatomy & histology
  • Songbirds / genetics*
  • Songbirds / physiology
  • Ukraine


  • Radioactive Fallout