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Keywords:

  • B. betularia ;
  • evolution ;
  • fecundity ;
  • heavy metals ;
  • ions ;
  • melanin ;
  • polymorphism ;
  • selection ;
  • toxicity

Industrial melanism, a phenomenon observed in some moths and especially in the case of the peppered moth (Biston betularia), has received much attention as an example of Darwinian evolution in action. The rapid rise in the proportion of the darker melanic form of the adult moth coincided with the advent of atmospheric pollution resulting from industrialization, and was ascribed to the improved camouflage of the melanotic insects against a background blackened by soot, which conferred a selective advantage in the avoidance of predation by birds. The topic of the increase in melanization during the initial period of industrial expansion and the reversal of the process after the introduction of the Clean Air Act has received much attention. Although there is sound experimental evidence to support selective avian predation as a major mechanism to account for the changes in the relative frequency of melanics, it is not clear that this is the only selective factor involved in industrial melanism. It is possible that other processes may have made a contribution to the preponderance of melanic variants. In the present study, the hypothesis is advanced that melanization may have conferred a selective advantage by protecting the insects from the toxic effects of metals by virtue of the strong metal chelating action of melanin. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 109, 298–301.