Geographic variation in animal colour polymorphisms and its role in speciation

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2014 Nov;89(4):860-73. doi: 10.1111/brv.12083. Epub 2014 Feb 14.


Polymorphic species, in which multiple variants coexist within a population, are often used as model systems in evolutionary biology. Recent research has been dominated by the hypothesis that polymorphism can be a precursor to speciation. To date, the majority of research regarding polymorphism and speciation has focused on whether polymorphism is maintained within a population or whether morphs within populations may diverge to form separate species (sympatric speciation); however, the geographical context of speciation in polymorphic systems is likely to be both diverse and complex. In this review, we draw attention to the geographic variation in morph composition and frequencies that characterises many, if not most polymorphic species. Recent theoretical and empirical developments suggest that such variation in the number, type and frequency of morphs present among populations can increase the probability of speciation. Thus, the geographical context of a polymorphism requires a greater research focus. Here, we review the prevalence, causes and evolutionary consequences of geographic variation in polymorphism in colour-polymorphic animal species. The prevalence and nature of geographic variation in polymorphism suggests that polymorphism may be a precursor to and facilitate speciation more commonly than appreciated previously. We argue that a better understanding of the processes generating geographic variation in polymorphism is vital to understanding how polymorphism can promote speciation.

Keywords: clinal variation; co-adapted trait complexes; colour morph; correlational selection; diversity; gene flow; morph composition; population divergence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Distribution / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Phylogeography
  • Pigments, Biological / physiology*
  • Species Specificity


  • Pigments, Biological