, Volume 174, Issue 2, pp 447-458

Moose body mass variation revisited: disentangling effects of environmental conditions and genetics

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Abstract

Large-scale geographical variation in phenotypic traits within species is often correlated to local environmental conditions and population density. Such phenotypic variation has recently been shown to also be influenced by genetic structuring of populations. In ungulates, large-scale geographical variation in phenotypic traits, such as body mass, has been related to environmental conditions and population density, but little is known about the genetic influences. Research on the genetic structure of moose suggests two distinct genetic lineages in Norway, structured along a north-south gradient. This corresponds with many environmental gradients, thus genetic structuring provides an additional factor affecting geographical phenotypic variation in Norwegian moose. We investigated if genetic structure explained geographical variation in body mass in Norwegian moose while accounting for environmental conditions, age and sex, and if it captured some of the variance in body mass that previously was attributed to environmental factors. Genetic structuring of moose was the most important variable in explaining the geographic variation in body mass within age and sex classes. Several environmental variables also had strong explanatory power, related to habitat diversity, environmental seasonality and winter harshness. The results suggest that environmental conditions, landscape characteristics, and genetic structure should be evaluated together when explaining large-scale patterns in phenotypic characters or life history traits. However, to better understand the role of genetic and environmental effects on phenotypic traits in moose, an extended individual-based study of variation in fitness-related characters is needed, preferably in an area of convergence between different genetic lineages.

Communicated by Jean-Michel Gaillard.