Disentangling plastic and genetic changes in body mass of Siberian jays

P. Gienapp, J. Merilä

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Spatial and temporal phenotypic differentiation in mean body size is of commonplace occurrence, but the underlying causes remain often unclear: both genetic differentiation in response to selection (or drift) and environmentally induced plasticity can create similar phenotypic patterns. Studying changes in body mass in Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) over three decades, we discovered that mean body mass declined drastically (ca. 10%) over the first two decades, but increased markedly thereafter back to almost the initial level. Quantitative genetic analyses revealed that although body mass was heritable (h2 = 0.46), the pronounced temporal decrease in body mass was mainly a product of phenotypic plasticity. However, a concomitant and statistically significant decrease in predicted breeding values suggests a genetic component to this change. The subsequent increase in mean body mass was indicated to be entirely due to plasticity. Selection on body mass was estimated to be too weak to fully account for the observed genetic decline in body mass, but bias in selection differential estimates due to environmental covariance between body mass and fitness is possible. Hence, the observed body mass changes appear to be driven mainly by phenotypic plasticity. Although we were not able to identify the ecological driver of the observed plastic changes, the results highlight the utility of quantitative genetic approaches in disentangling genetic and phenotypic changes in natural populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1849-1858
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number9
Early online date14 Jun 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • animal model
  • Bergmann's rule
  • BLUP breeding value
  • climate change
  • Perisoreus infaustus
  • international

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