Can indirect selection and genetic context contribute to trait diversification? A transition-probability study of blossom-colour evolution in two genera


  • W. S. Armbruster

    1. Department of Botany, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway and Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK, USA
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W. Scott Armbruster, Department of Botany, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway. Tel.: 47 7359 0339; fax: 47 7359 6100; e-mail:


Darwin recognized that biological diversity has accumulated as a result of both adaptive and nonadaptive processes. Very few studies, however, have addressed explicitly the contribution of nonadaptive processes to evolutionary diversification, and no general procedures have been established for distinguishing between adaptive and nonadaptive processes as sources of trait diversity. I use the diversification of flower colour as a model system for attempting to identify adaptive and nonadaptive causes of trait diversification. It is widely accepted that variation in flower colour reflects direct, adaptive response to divergent selective pressures generated by different pollinators. However, diversification of flower colour may also result from the effects of nonadaptive, pleiotropic relationships with vegetative traits. Floral pigments that have pleiotropic relationships to vegetative pigments may evolve and diversify in at least two nonadaptive ways. (1) Indirect response to selection on the pleiotropically related nonfloral traits may occur (indirect selection). (2) Divergent evolution in response to parallel selective pressures (e.g. selection by pollinators for visually obvious flowers) may occur because populations are at different genetic starting points, and each population follows its own genetic `line of least resistance.' A survey of literature suggests that pleiotropic relationships between flower colour and vegetative traits are common. Phylogenetically informed analyses of comparative data from Dalechampia (Euphorbiaceae) and Acer (Aceraceae), based on trait-transition probabilities and maximum likelihood, indicated that floral and vegetative pigments are probably pleiotropically related in these genera, and this relationship better explains the diversification of floral colour than does direct selection by pollinators. In Dalechampia pink/purple floral bract colour may have originated by indirect response to selection on stem and leaf pigments. In Acer selection by pollinators for visually obvious flowers may to have led to the evolution of red or purple flowers in lineages synthesizing and deploying red anthocyanins in leaves, and pale-green or yellow flowers in species not deploying red anthocyanins in vegetative structures. This study illustrates the broader potential of indirect selection and parallel selection on different genetic starting points to contribute to biological diversity, and the value of testing directly for the operation of these nonadaptive diversifying processes.