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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2015

A stable, genetically determined colour dimorphism in the dung beetle Aphodius depressus: patterns and mechanisms

Kuusijarvi, Anniina; Hardwick, Bess; Luoto, Miska; Roslin, Tomas


1. Melanism - the occurrence of dark morphs - in insects has been attributed to differences in, among other things, thermoregulation and immune defence. Dark individuals are hypothesised to perform better in colder areas, and to exhibit stronger melanin-based immune defence. 2. In the present study, the geographical distribution of two colour morphs in Aphodius depressus (Kugelann), its climatic correlates, and temporal stability was described. Underlying mechanisms were then targeted through experiments: the inheritance of colour through controlled crosses, heating rates by thermal imaging, physiological tolerance by critical thermal limits, and immune efficiency by melanisation of implants. 3. In A. depressus, colour appears inherited by simple Mendelian principles, with red dominating over black. The frequency of two colour morphs forms a large-scale cline. In the South West of Finland, all individuals are black, whereas, in the North East, most are red. This pattern has remained constant over 13 years (1996-2008). 4. The geographical pattern was not attributable to thermoregulation: black morphs were more abundant in warmer rather than colder parts of the country. In experiments, we found no differences in the heating rate of the two morphs, or in their upper temperature maxima. Neither did the morphs differ in their response to artificial objects inserted in their haemolymph. 5. Overall, colour variation in A. depressus occurs as a stable, genetically determined dimorphism, governed by Mendelian inheritance. Yet, no support for prevailing theory of factors sustaining melanism was found. The reasons for colour polymorphism in insects may thus be complex, and should be sought on a case-by-case basis.


Colour cline; colour polymorphism; immune defence; melanic morph; Mendelian inheritance; thermal melanism; thermoregulation

Published in

Ecological Entomology
2015, volume: 40, number: 5, pages: 575-584

Authors' information

Kuusijärvi, Anniina
University of Helsinki
Hardwick, Bess
Luoto, Miska
University of Helsinki
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology

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