Museomics dissects the genetic basis for adaptive seasonal colouration in the least weasel

Inês Miranda, Iwona Giska, Liliana Farelo, João Pimenta, Marketa Zimova, Jarosław Bryk, Love Dalén, L. Scott Mills, Karol Zub, José Melo-Ferreira

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Dissecting the link between genetic variation and adaptive phenotypes provides outstanding opportunities to understand fundamental evolutionary processes. Here, we use a museomics approach to investigate the genetic basis and evolution of winter coat colouration morphs in least weasels (Mustela nivalis), a repeated adaptation for camouflage in mammals with seasonal pelage colour moults across regions with varying winter snow. Whole-genome sequence data was obtained from biological collections and mapped onto a newly assembled reference genome for the species. Sampling represented two replicate transition zones between nivalis and vulgaris colouration morphs in Europe, which typically develop white or brown winter coats, respectively. Population analyses showed that the morph distribution across transition zones is not a by-product of historical structure. Association scans linked a 200 kb genomic region to colouration morph, which was validated by genotyping museum specimens from inter-morph experimental crosses. Genotyping the wild populations narrowed down the association to pigmentation gene MC1R and pinpointed a candidate amino acid change co-segregating with colouration morph. This polymorphism replaces an ancestral leucine residue by lysine at the start of the first extracellular loop of the protein in the vulgaris morph. A selective sweep signature overlapped the association region in vulgaris, suggesting that past adaptation favoured winter-brown morphs and can anchor future adaptive responses to decreasing winter snow. Using biological collections as valuable resources to study natural adaptations, our study showed a new evolutionary route generating winter colour variation in mammals and that seasonal camouflage can be modulated by changes at single key genes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Early online date22 Jun 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Jun 2021


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