31° South: The physiology of adaptation to arid conditions in a passerine bird

Mol Ecol. 2019 Aug;28(16):3709-3721. doi: 10.1111/mec.15176. Epub 2019 Aug 6.


Arid environments provide ideal ground for investigating the mechanisms of adaptive evolution. High temperatures and low water availability are relentless stressors for many endotherms, including birds; yet birds persist in deserts. While physiological adaptation probably involves metabolic phenotypes, the underlying mechanisms (plasticity, genetics) are largely uncharacterized. To explore this, we took an intraspecific approach that focused on a species that is resident over a mesic to arid gradient, the Karoo scrub-robin (Cercotrichas coryphaeus). Specifically, we integrated environmental (climatic and primary productivity), physiological (metabolic rates: a measure of energy expenditure), genotypic (genetic variation underlying the machinery of energy production) and microbiome (involved in processing food from where energy is retrieved) data, to infer the mechanism of physiological adaptation. We that found the variation in energetic physiology phenotypes and gut microbiome composition are associated with environmental features as well as with variation in genes underlying energy metabolic pathways. Specifically, we identified a small list of candidate adaptive genes, some of them with known ties to relevant physiology phenotypes. Together our results suggest that selective pressures on energetic physiology mediated by genes related to energy homeostasis and possibly microbiota composition may facilitate adaptation to local conditions and provide an explanation to the high avian intraspecific divergence observed in harsh environments.

Keywords: aridity; birds; energetic physiology; microbiome; natural selection; target enrichment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism
  • Desert Climate*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Association Studies
  • Genetics, Population
  • Genotype
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • South Africa

Associated data