Colour polymorphism and correlated characters: genetic mechanisms and evolution

Mol Ecol. 2010 Dec;19(23):5101-25. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04846.x. Epub 2010 Oct 11.


Colour polymorphisms (CP's) continue to be of interest to evolutionary biologists because of their general tractability, importance in studies of selection and potential role in speciation. Since some of the earliest studies of CP, it has been evident that alternative colour morphs often differ in features other than colour. Here we review the rapidly accumulating evidence concerning the genetic mechanisms underlying correlations between CP and other traits in animals. We find that evidence for genetic correlations is now available for taxonomically diverse systems and that physical linkage and regulatory mechanisms including transcription factors, cis-regulatory elements, and hormone systems provide pathways for the ready accumulation or modification of these correlations. Moreover, physical linkage and regulatory mechanisms may both contribute to genetic correlation in some of the best-studied systems. These results raise the possibility that negative frequency-dependent selection and disruptive selection might often be acting on suites of traits and that the cumulative effects of such selection, as well as correlational selection, may be important to CP persistence and evolution. We consider additional evolutionary implications. We recommend continued efforts to elucidate the mechanisms underlying CP-correlated characters and the more frequent application of comparative approaches, looking at related species that vary in character correlations and patterns of selection. We also recommend efforts to elucidate how frequency-dependent selection may act on suites of characters.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Linkage
  • Genetic Pleiotropy
  • Hormones / genetics
  • Pigmentation / genetics*
  • Plants / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Transcription Factors / genetics


  • Hormones
  • Transcription Factors