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Last update: May 2021

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Colour polymorphism is associated with lower extinction risk in birds

Colour polymorphism is associated with lower extinction risk in birds
Do species with a greater diversity of color (polymorphism) have a lower risk of extinction than those with no color diversity? Simon Ducatez (post-doctoral fellow at Sidney University in Australia) and Lisa Jacquin (Associate Professor at the EDB Laboratory - a TULIP laboratory) were adressed this question in an article published in Global Change Biology in April 2017.

Abstract : Colour polymorphisms have played a major role in enhancing current understanding of how selection and demography can impact phenotypes. Because different morphs often display alternative strategies and exploit alternative ecological niches, colour polymorphism can be expected to promote adaptability to environmental changes. However, whether and how it could influence populations’ and species’ response to global changes remains debated.

To address this question, we built an up-to-date and complete database on avian colour polymorphism based on the examination of available data from all 10,394 extant bird species. We distinguished between true polymorphism (where different genetically determined morphs cooccur in sympatry within the same population) and geographic variation (parapatric or allopatric colour variation), because these two patterns of variation are expected to have different consequences on populations’ persistence. Using the IUCN red list, we then showed that polymorphic bird species are at lesser risk of extinction than nonpolymorphic ones, after controlling for a range of factors such as geographic range size, habitat breadth, life history, and phylogeny. This appears consistent with the idea that high genetic diversity and/or the existence of alternative strategies in polymorphic species promotes the ability to adaptively respond to changing environmental conditions. In contrast, polymorphic species were not less vulnerable than nonpolymorphic ones to specific drivers of extinction such as habitat alteration, direct exploitation, climate change, and invasive species.

Thus, our results suggest that colour polymorphism acts as a buffer against environmental changes, although further studies are now needed to understand the underlying mechanisms. Developing accurate quantitative indices of sensitivity to specific threats is likely a key step towards a better understanding of species response to environmental changes.

Anser caerulescens@LisaJacquinVIGNETTE

Anser caerulescens ©LisaJacquin