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Keywords:

  • Color polymorphism;
  • environmental gradient;
  • FST-QST;
  • natural selection

Ecological parameters vary in space, and the resulting heterogeneity of selective forces can drive adaptive population divergence. Clinal variation represents a classical model to study the interplay of gene flow and selection in the dynamics of this local adaptation process. Although geographic variation in phenotypic traits in discrete populations could be remainders of past adaptation, maintenance of adaptive clinal variation requires recurrent selection. Clinal variation in genetically determined traits is generally attributed to adaptation of different genotypes to local conditions along an environmental gradient, although it can as well arise from neutral processes. Here, we investigated whether selection accounts for the strong clinal variation observed in a highly heritable pheomelanin-based color trait in the European barn owl by comparing spatial differentiation of color and of neutral genes among populations. Barn owl's coloration varies continuously from white in southwestern Europe to reddish-brown in northeastern Europe. A very low differentiation at neutral genetic markers suggests that substantial gene flow occurs among populations. The persistence of pronounced color differentiation despite this strong gene flow is consistent with the hypothesis that selection is the primary force maintaining color variation among European populations. Therefore, the color cline is most likely the result of local adaptation.