Our hand in maladaptation


In the previous post on The G-CAT, we talked about the role of maladaptation in the evolution of populations and species, and how this might impact their future. To summarise, maladaptation is the process (or trait responsible for) which causes a reduction in the fitness. As we discussed, this can come about a number of ways – such as from a shift in the selective environment or from fitness trade-offs in traits over time – and predominantly impacts on species by reducing their capacity to adapt. Particularly, this is important for small populations or those lacking in genetic diversity, which are already at risk of entering an extinction vortex and lack the capability to respond well to extreme selective changes (such as contemporary climate change).

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The Bad and the Ugly of evolution: an introduction to maladaptation

Adaptation and natural selection

Adaptation via natural selection is one of the most fundamental components of understanding evolution. It describes how species can continually evolve new, innovative traits and produce the wondrous diversity of the natural world. This process is inevitably underpinned by particular heritable traits often linked to particular genetic variants (alleles). Remember that the underlying genetic trait (the allele) is referred to as the genotype; the physical outcomes of that allele (i.e. how it changes the physiological, behaviour or ecology of the organism) is the phenotype; and the scale of the benefit of possessing that trait is referred to as its fitness. Under the normal process of natural selection, phenotypes which increase fitness are selected for, which results in a shift in genotypes underpinning it.

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Crossing the Wires: why ‘genetic hardwiring’ is not the whole story

The age-old folly of ‘nature vs. nurture’

It should come as no surprise to any reader of The G-CAT that I’m a firm believer against the false dichotomy (and yes, I really do love that phrase) of “nature versus nurture.” Primarily, this is because the phrase gives the impression of some kind of counteracting balance between intrinsic (i.e. usually genetic) and extrinsic (i.e. usually environmental) factors and how they play a role in behaviour, ecology and evolution. While both are undoubtedly critical for adaptation by natural selection, posing this as a black-and-white split removes the possibility of interactive traits.

We know readily that fitness, the measure by which adaptation or maladaptation can be quantified, is the product of both the adaptive value of a certain trait and the environmental conditions said trait occurs in. A trait that might confer strong fitness in white environment may be very, very unfit in another. A classic example is fur colour in mammals: in a snowy environment, a white coat provides camouflage for predators and prey alike; in a rainforest environment, it’s like wearing one of those fluoro-coloured safety vests construction workers wear.

Genetics and environment interactions figure.jpg
The real Circle of Life. Not only do genes and the environment interact with one another, but genes may interact with other genes and environments may be complex and multi-faceted.

Genetically-encoded traits

In the “nature versus nurture” context, the ‘nature’ traits are often inherently assumed to be genetic. This is because genetic traits are intrinsic as a fundamental aspect of life, inheritable (and thus can be passed on and undergo evolution by natural selection) and define the important physiological traits that provide (or prevent) adaptation. Of course, not all of the genome encodes phenotypic traits at all, and even less relate to diagnosable and relevant traits for natural selection to act upon. In addition, there is a bit of an assumption that many physiological or behavioural traits are ‘hardwired’: that is, despite any influence of environment, genes will always produce a certain phenotype.

Adaptation from genetic variation.jpg
A very simplified example of adaptation from genetic variation. In this example, we have two different alleles of a single gene (orange and blue). Natural selection favours the blue allele so over time it increases in frequency. The difference between these two alleles is at least one base pair of DNA sequence; this often arises by mutation processes.

Despite how important the underlying genes are for the formation of proteins and definition of physiology, they are not omnipotent in that regard. In fact, many other factors can influence how genetic traits relate to phenotypic traits: we’ve discussed a number of these in minor detail previously. An example includes interactions across different genes: these can be due to physiological traits encoded by the cumulative presence and nature of many loci (as in quantitative trait loci and polygenic adaptation). Alternatively, one gene may translate to multiple different physiological characters if it shows pleiotropy.

Differential expression

One non-direct way genetic information can impact on the phenotype of an organism is through something we’ve briefly discussed before known as differential expression. This is based on the notion that different environmental pressures may affect the expression (that is, how a gene is translated into a protein) in alternative ways. This is a fundamental underpinning of what we call phenotypic plasticity: the concept that despite having the exact same (or very similar) genes and alleles, two clonal individuals can vary in different traits. The is related to the example of genetically-identical twins which are not necessarily physically identical; this could be due to environmental constraints on growth, behaviour or personality.

Brauer DE figure_cropped
An example of differential expression in wild populations of southern pygmy perch, courtesy of Brauer et al. (2017). In this figure, each column represents a single individual fish, with the phylogenetic tree and coloured boxes at the top indicating the different populations. Each row represents a different gene (this is a subset of 50 from a much larger dataset). The colour of each cell indicates whether the expression of that gene is expressed more (red) or less (blue) than average. As you can see, the different populations can clearly be seen within their expression profiles, with certain genes expressing more or less in certain populations.

From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to translate a single gene into multiple phenotypic traits has a strong advantage. It allows adaptation to new, novel environments without waiting for natural selection to favour adaptive mutations (or for new, adaptive alleles to become available from new mutation events). This might be a fundamental trait that determines which species can become invasive pests, for instance: the ability to establish and thrive in environments very different to their native habitat allows introduced species to quickly proliferate and spread. Even for species which we might not consider ‘invasive’ (i.e. they have naturally spread to new environments), phenotypic plasticity might allow them to very rapidly adapt and evolve into new ecological niches and could even underpin the early stages of the speciation process.


Related to this alternative expression of genes is another relatively recent concept: that of epigenetics. In epigenetics, the expression and function of genes is controlled by chemical additions to the DNA which can make gene expression easier or more difficult, effectively promoting or silencing genes. Generally, the specific chemicals that are attached to the DNA are relatively (but not always) predictable in their effects: for example, the addition of a methyl group to the sequence is generally associated with the repression of the gene underlying it. How and where these epigenetic markers may in turn be affected by environmental conditions, creating a direct conduit between environmental (‘nurture’) and intrinsic genetic (‘nature’) aspects of evolution.

A diagram of different epigenetic factors and the mechanisms by which they control gene expression. Source: Wikipedia.

Typically, these epigenetic ‘marks’ (chemical additions to the DNA) are erased and reset during fertilisation: the epigenetic marks on the parental gametes are removed, and new marks are made on the fertilised embryo. However, it has been shown that this removal process is not 100% effective, and in fact some marks are clearly passed down from parent to offspring. This means that these marks are heritable, and could allow them to evolve similarly to full DNA mutations.

The discovery of epigenetic markers and their influence on gene expression has opened up the possibility of understanding heritable traits which don’t appear to be clearly determined by genetics alone. For example, research into epigenetics suggest that heritable major depressive disorder (MDD) may be controlled by the expression of genes, rather than from specific alleles or genetic variants themselves. This is likely true for a number of traits for which the association to genotype is not entirely clear.

Epigenetic adaptation?

From an evolutionary standpoint again, epigenetics can similarly influence the ‘bang for a buck’ of particular genes. Being able to translate a single gene into many different forms, and for this to be linked to environmental conditions, allows organisms to adapt to a variety of new circumstances without the need for specific adaptive genes to be available. Following this logic, epigenetic variation might be critically important for species with naturally (or unnaturally) low genetic diversity to adapt into the future and survive in an ever-changing world. Thus, epigenetic information might paint a more optimistic outlook for the future: although genetic variation is, without a doubt, one of the most fundamental aspects of adaptability, even horrendously genetically depleted populations and species might still be able to be saved with the right epigenetic diversity.

Epigenetic cats example
A relatively simplified example of adaptation from epigenetic variation. In this example, we have a species of cat; the ‘default’ cat has non-tufted ears and an orange coat. These two traits are controlled by the expression of Genes A and B, respectively: in the top cat, neither gene is expressed. However, when this cat is placed into different environments, the different genes are “switched on” by epigenetic factors (the green markers). In a rainforest environment, the dark foliage makes darker coat colour more adaptive; switching on Gene B allows this to happen. Conversely, in a desert environment switching on Gene A causes the cat to develop tufts on its ears, which makes it more effective at hunting prey hiding in the sands. Note that in both circumstances, the underlying genetic sequence (indicated by the colours in the DNA) is identical: only the expression of those genes change.


Epigenetic research, especially from an ecological/evolutionary perspective, is a very new field. Our understanding of how epigenetic factors translate into adaptability, the relative performance of epigenetic vs. genetic diversity in driving adaptability, and how limited heritability plays a role in adaptation is currently limited. As with many avenues of research, further studies in different contexts, experiments and scopes will reveal further this exciting new aspect of evolutionary and conservation genetics. In short: watch this space! And remember, ‘nature is nurture’ (and vice versa)!

What’s the (allele) frequency, Kenneth?

Allele frequency

A number of times before on The G-CAT, we’ve discussed the idea of using the frequency of different genetic variants (alleles) within a particular population or species to test a number of different questions about evolution, ecology and conservation. These are all based on the central notion that certain forces of nature will alter the distribution and frequency of alleles within and across populations, and that these patterns are somewhat predictable in how they change.

One particular distinction we need to make early here is the difference between allele frequency and allele identity. In these analyses, often we are working with the same alleles (i.e. particular variants) across our populations, it’s just that each of these populations may possess these particular alleles in different frequencies. For example, one population may have an allele (let’s call it Allele A) very rarely – maybe only 10% of individuals in that population possess it – but in another population it’s very common and perhaps 80% of individuals have it. This is a different level of differentiation than comparing how different alleles mutate (as in the coalescent) or how these mutations accumulate over time (like in many phylogenetic-based analyses).

Allele freq vs identity figure.jpg
An example of the difference between allele frequency and identity. In this example (and many of the figures that follow in this post), the circle denote different populations, within which there are individuals which possess either an A gene (blue) or a B gene. Left: If we compared Populations 1 and 2, we can see that they both have A and B alleles. However, these alleles vary in their frequency within each population, with an equal balance of A and B in Pop 1 and a much higher frequency of B in Pop 2. Right: However, when we compared Pop 3 and 4, we can see that not only do they vary in frequencies, they vary in the presence of alleles, with one allele in each population but not the other.

Non-adaptive (neutral) uses

Testing neutral structure

Arguably one of the most standard uses of allele frequency data is the determination of population structure, one which more avid The G-CAT readers will be familiar with. This is based on the idea that populations that are isolated from one another are less likely to share alleles (and thus have similar frequencies of those alleles) than populations that are connected. This is because gene flow across two populations helps to homogenise the frequency of alleles within those populations, by either diluting common alleles or spreading rarer ones (in general). There are a number of programs that use allele frequency data to assess population structure, but one of the most common ones is STRUCTURE.

Gene flow homogeneity figure
An example of how gene flow across populations homogenises allele frequencies. We start with two initial populations (and from above), which have very different allele frequencies. Hybridising individuals across the two populations means some alleles move from Pop 1 and Pop 2 into the hybrid population: which alleles moves is random (the smaller circles). Because of this, the resultant hybrid population has an allele frequency somewhere in between the two source populations: think of like mixing red and blue cordial and getting a purple drink.


Simple YPP structure figure.jpg
An example of a Structure plot which long-term The G-CAT readers may be familiar with. This is taken from Brauer et al. (2013), where the authors studied the population structure of the Yarra pygmy perch. Each small column represents a single individual, with the colours representing how well the alleles of that individual fit a particular genetic population (each population has one colour). The numbers and broader columns refer to different ‘localities’ (different from populations) where individuals were sourced. This shows clear strong population structure across the 4 main groups, except for in Locality 6 where there is a mixture of Eastern and Merri/Curdies alleles.

Determining genetic bottlenecks and demographic change

Other neutral aspects of population identity and history can be studied using allele frequency data. One big component of understanding population history in particular is determining how the population size has changed over time, and relating this to bottleneck events or expansion periods. Although there are a number of different approaches to this, which span many types of analyses (e.g. also coalescent methods), allele frequency data is particularly suited to determining changes in the recent past (hundreds of generations, as opposed to thousands of generations ago). This is because we expect that, during a bottleneck event, it is statistically more likely for rare alleles (i.e. those with low frequency) in the population to be lost due to strong genetic drift: because of this, the population coming out of the bottleneck event should have an excess of more frequent alleles compared to a non-bottlenecked population. We can determine if this is the case with tests such as the heterozygosity excess, M-ratio or mode shift tests.

Genetic drift and allele freq figure
A diagram of how allele frequencies change in genetic bottlenecks due to genetic drift. Left: Large circles again denote a population (although across different sequential times), with smaller circle denoting which alleles survive into the next generation (indicated by the coloured arrows). We start with an initial ‘large’ population of 8, which is reduced down to 4 and 2 in respective future times. Each time the population contracts, only a select number of alleles (or individuals) ‘survive’: assuming no natural selection is in process, this is totally random from the available gene pool. Right: We can see that over time, the frequencies of alleles A and B shift dramatically, leading to the ‘extinction’ of Allele B due to genetic drift. This is because it is the less frequent allele of the two, and in the smaller population size has much less chance of randomly ‘surviving’ the purge of the genetic bottleneck. 

Adaptive (selective) uses

Testing different types of selection

We’ve also discussed previously about how different types of natural selection can alter the distribution of allele frequency within a population. There are a number of different predictions we can make based on the selective force and the overall population. For understanding particular alleles that are under strong selective pressure (i.e. are either strongly adaptive or maladaptive), we often test for alleles which have a frequency that strongly deviates from the ‘neutral’ background pattern of the population. These are called ‘outlier loci’, and the fact that their frequency is much more different from the average across the genome is attributed to natural selection placing strong pressure on either maintaining or removing that allele.

Other selective tests are based on the idea of correlating the frequency of alleles with a particular selective environmental pressure, such as temperature or precipitation. In this case, we expect that alleles under selection will vary in relation to the environmental variable. For example, if a particular allele confers a selective benefit under hotter temperatures, we would expect that allele to be more common in populations that occur in hotter climates and rarer in populations that occur in colder climates. This is referred to as a ‘genotype-environment association test’ and is a good way to detect polymorphic selection (i.e. when multiple alleles contribute to a change in a single phenotypic trait).

Genotype by environment figure.jpg
An example of how the frequency of alleles might vary under natural selection in correlation to the environment. In this example, the blue allele A is adaptive and under positive selection in the more intense environment, and thus increases in frequency at higher values. Contrastingly, the red allele B is maladaptive in these environments and decreases in frequency. For comparison, the black allele shows how the frequency of a neutral (non-adaptive or maladaptive) allele doesn’t vary with the environment, as it plays no role in natural selection.

Taxonomic (species identity) uses

At one end of the spectrum of allele frequencies, we can also test for what we call ‘fixed differences’ between populations. An allele is considered ‘fixed’ it is the only allele for that locus in the population (i.e. has a frequency of 1), whilst the alternative allele (which may exist in other populations) has a frequency of 0. Expanding on this, ‘fixed differences’ occur when one population has Allele A fixed and another population has Allele B fixed: thus, the two populations have as different allele frequencies (for that one locus, anyway) as possible.

Fixed differences are sometimes used as a type of diagnostic trait for species. This means that each ‘species’ has genetic variants that are not shared at all with its closest relative species, and that these variants are so strongly under selection that there is no diversity at those loci. Often, fixed differences are considered a level above populations that differ by allelic frequency only as these alleles are considered ‘diagnostic’ for each species.

Fixed differences figure.jpg
An example of the difference between fixed differences and allelic frequency differences. In this example, we have 5 cats from 3 different species, sequencing a particular target gene. Within this gene, there are three possible alleles: T, A or G respectively. You’ll quickly notice that the allele is both unique to Species A and is present in all cats of that species (i.e. is fixed). This is a fixed difference between Species A and the other two. Alleles and G, however, are present in both Species B and C, and thus are not fixed differences even if they have different frequencies.

Intrapopulation (relatedness) uses

Allele frequency-based methods are even used in determining relatedness between individuals. While it might seem intuitive to just check whether individuals share the same alleles (and are thus related), it can be hard to distinguish between whether they are genetically similar due to direct inheritance or whether the entire population is just ‘naturally’ similar, especially at a particular locus. This is the distinction between ‘identical-by-descent’, where alleles that are similar across individuals have recently been inherited from a similar ancestor (e.g. a parent or grandparent) or ‘identical-by-state’, where alleles are similar just by chance. The latter doesn’t contribute or determine relatedness as all individuals (whether they are directly related or not) within a population may be similar.

To distinguish between the two, we often use the overall frequency of alleles in a population as a basis for determining how likely two individuals share an allele by random chance. If alleles which are relatively rare in the overall population are shared by two individuals, we expect that this similarity is due to family structure rather than population history. By factoring this into our relatedness estimates we can get a more accurate overview of how likely two individuals are to be related using genetic information.

The wild world of allele frequency

Despite appearances, this is just a brief foray into the many applications of allele frequency data in evolution, ecology and conservation studies. There are a plethora of different programs and methods that can utilise this information to address a variety of scientific questions and refine our investigations.

What is a species, anyway?

This is Part 1 of a four part miniseries on the process of speciation; how we get new species, how we can see this in action, and the end results of the process. This week, we’ll start with a seemingly obvious question: what is a species?

The definition of a ‘species’

‘Species’ are a human definition of the diversity of life. When we talk about the diversity of life, and the myriad of creatures and plants on Earth, we often talk about species diversity. This might seem glaringly obvious, but there’s one key issue: what is a species, anyway? While we might like to think of them as discrete and obvious groups (a dog is definitely not the same species as a cat, for example), the concept of a singular “species” is actually the result of human categorisation.

In reality, the diversity of life is spread across a huge spectrum of differentiation: from things which are closely related but still different to us (like chimps), to more different again (other mammals), to hardly relatable at all (bacteria and plants). So, what is the cut-off for calling something a species, and not a different genus, family, or kingdom? Or alternatively, at what point do we call a specific sub-group of a species as a sub-species, or another species entirely?

This might seem like a simple question: we look at two things, and they look different, so they must be different species, right? Well, of course, nature is never simple, and the line between “different” and “not different” is very blurry. Here’s an example: consider that you knew nothing about the history, behaviour or genetics of dogs. If you simply looked at all the different breeds of dogs on Earth, you might suggest that there are hundreds of species of domestic dogs. That seems a little excessive though, right? In fact, the domestic dog, Eurasian wolf, and the Australian dingo are all the same species (but different subspecies, along with about 38 others…but that’s another issue altogether).

Morphology can be misleading for identifying species. In this example, we have A) a dog, B) also a dog, C) still a dog, D) yet another dog, and E) not a dog. For the record, A-D are all Canis lupus of some variety; and are domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), C is a dingo (Canis lupus dingo) and is a grey wolf (Canis lupus lupus). E, however, is the Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis.

How do we describe species?

This method of describing species based on how they look (their morphology) is the very traditional approach to taxonomy. And for a long time, it seemed to work…until we get to more complex scenarios like the domestic dog. Or scenarios where two species look fairly similar, but in reality have evolved entirely differently for a very, very long time. Or groups which look close to more than one other species. So how do we describe them instead?

Cats and foxes
A), a fox. B), a cat. C), a foxy cat? A catty fox? A cat-fox hybrid? Something unrelated to cat or a fox?


Believe it or not, there are dozens of ways of deciding what is a species and what isn’t. In Speciation (2004), Coyne & Orr count at least 25 different reported Species Concepts that had been suggested within science, based on different requirements such as evolutionary history, genetic identity, or ecological traits. These different concepts can often contradict one another about where to draw the line between species…so what do we use?

The Biological Species Concept (BSC)

The most commonly used species concept is called the Biological Species Concept (BSC), which denotes that “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups” (Mayr, 1942). In short, a population is considered a different species to another population if an individual from one cannot reliably breed to form fertile, viable offspring with an individual from the other. We often refer to this as “reproductive isolation.” It’s important to note that reproductive isolation doesn’t mean they can’t breed at all: just that the hybrid offspring will not live a healthy life and produce its own healthy offspring.

For example, a horse and zebra can breed to produce a zorse, however zorse are fundamentally infertile (due to the different number of chromosomes between a horse and a zebra) and thus a horse is a different species to a zebra. However, a German Shepherd and a chihuahua can breed and make a hybrid mutt, so they are the same species.

A zorse, which shows its hybrid nature through zebra stripes and horse colouring. These two are still separate species since zorses are infertile, and thus are not a singular stable entity.

You might naturally ask why reproductive isolation is apparently so important for deciding species. Most directly, this means that groups don’t share gene pools at all (since genetic information is introduced and maintained over time through breeding events), which causes them to be genetically independent of one another. Thus, changes in the genetic make-up of one species shouldn’t (theoretically) transfer into the gene pool of another species through hybrids. This is an important concept as the gene pool of a species is the basis upon which natural selection and evolution act: thus, reproductively isolated species may evolve in very different manners over time.

RI example
An example of how reproductive isolation maintains genetic and evolutionary independence of species. In A), our cat groups are robust species, reproductively isolated from one another (as shown by the black box). When each species undergoes natural selection and their genetic variation changes (colour changes on the cats and DNA), these changes are kept within each lineage. This contrasts to B), where genetic changes can be transferred between species. Without reproductive isolation, evolution in the orange lineage and the blue lineage can combine within hybrids, sharing the evolutionary pathways of both ancestral species.

Pitfalls of the BSC

Just because the BSC is the most used concept doesn’t make it infallible, however. Many species on Earth don’t easily demonstrate reproductive isolation from one another, nor does the concept even make sense for asexually reproducing species. If an individual reproduced solely asexually (like many bacteria, or even some lizards), then by the BSC definition every individual is an entirely different species…which seems a little excessive. Even in sexually reproducing organisms, it can be hard to establish reproductive isolation, possibly because the species never come into contact physically.

This raises the debate of whether two species could, let alone will, hybridise in nature, which can be difficult to determine. And if two species do produce hybrid offspring, assessing their fertility or viability can be difficult to detect without many generations of breeding and measurements of fitness (hybrids may not be sustainable in nature if they are not well adapted to their environment and thus the two species are maintained as separate identities).

Hybrid birds
An example of unfit hybrids causing effective reproductive isolation. In this example, we have two different bird species adapted to very different habitats; a smaller, long-tailed bird (left) adapted to moving through dense forest, and a large, longer-legged bird (right) adapted to traversing arid deserts. When (or if) these two species hybridised, the resultant offspring would be middle of the road, possessing too few traits to be adaptive in either the forest or the desert and no fitting intermediate environment available. Measuring exactly how unfit this hybrid would be is a difficult task in establishing species boundaries.


Integrative taxonomy

To try and account for the issues with the BSC, taxonomists try to push for the usage of “integrative taxonomy”. This means that species should be defined by multiple different agreeing concepts, such as reproductive isolation, genetic differentiation, behavioural differences, and/or ecological traits. The more traits that can separate the two, the greater support there is for the species to be separated: if they disagree, then more information is needed to determine exactly whether or not that should be called different species. Debates about taxonomy are ongoing and are likely going to be relevant for years to come, but form critical components of understanding biodiversity, patterns of evolution, and creating effective conservation legislation to protect endangered or threatened species (for whichever groups we decide are species).