Genomics, environment and balancing selection in behaviourally bimodal populations: The caribou case

Mol Ecol. 2019 Apr;28(8):1946-1963. doi: 10.1111/mec.15039. Epub 2019 Apr 29.


Selection forces that favour different phenotypes in different environments can change frequencies of genes between populations along environmental clines. Clines are also compatible with balancing forces, such as negative frequency-dependent selection (NFDS), which maintains phenotypic polymorphisms within populations. For example, NFDS is hypothesized to maintain partial migration, a dimorphic behavioural trait prominent in species where only a fraction of the population seasonally migrates. Overall, NFDS is believed to be a common phenomenon in nature, yet a scarcity of studies were published linking naturally occurring allelic variation with bimodal or multimodal phenotypes and balancing selection. We applied a Pool-seq approach and detected selection on alleles associated with environmental variables along a North-South gradient in western North American caribou, a species displaying partially migratory behaviour. On 51 loci, we found a signature of balancing selection, which could be related to NFDS and ultimately the maintenance of the phenotypic polymorphisms known within these populations. Yet, remarkably, we detected directional selection on a locus when our sample was divided into two behaviourally distinctive groups regardless of geographic provenance (a subset of GPS-collared migratory or sedentary individuals), indicating that, within populations, phenotypically homogeneous groups were genetically distinctive. Loci under selection were linked to functional genes involved in oxidative stress response, body development and taste perception. Overall, results indicated genetic differentiation along an environmental gradient of caribou populations, which we found characterized by genes potentially undergoing balancing selection. We suggest that the underlining balancing force, NFDS, plays a strong role within populations harbouring multiple haplotypes and phenotypes, as it is the norm in animals, plants and humans too.

Keywords: Rangifer tarandus; balancing selection; caribou; environmental and climatic factors; genomics; migration; negative frequency-dependent selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Animal Migration
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Genetic Drift
  • Genetic Markers / genetics
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Haplotypes / genetics
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Reindeer / genetics*
  • Reindeer / physiology
  • Seasons
  • Selection, Genetic / genetics*


  • Genetic Markers