Understanding the maintenance of genetic variation in natural populations is a core aim of evolutionary genetics. Insight can be gained by quantifying selection at the level of the genotype, as opposed to the phenotype. Here, we show that in a natural population of Soay sheep which is polymorphic for coat pattern, recessive genetic variants at the causal gene, agouti signalling protein (ASIP) are associated with reduced lifetime fitness. This was due primarily to a reduction in juvenile survival of uniformly coloured (self-type) sheep, which are homozygous recessive, and occurs despite significantly higher reproductive success in surviving self-type adults. Consistent with their relatively low fitness, we show that the frequency of self-type individuals has declined from 1985 to 2008. Remarkably though, the frequency of the underlying self-allele has increased, because the frequency of heterozygous individuals (who harbour the majority of all self-alleles) has increased. Indeed, the ratio of observed/expected heterozygous individuals has increased during the study, such that there is now a significant excess of heterozygotyes. By employing gene-dropping simulations, we show that microevolutionary trends in the frequency and excess of ASIP heterozygotes are too pronounced to be caused by genetic drift. Studying this polymorphism at the level of phenotype rather than underlying genotype would have failed to detect cryptic fitness differences. We would also have been unable to rule out genetic drift as an evolutionary force driving genetic change. This highlights the importance of resolving the underlying genetic basis of phenotypic variation in explaining evolutionary dynamics.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.