Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences

, Volume 67, Issue 15, pp 2591–2603 | Cite as

The genetic and evolutionary basis of colour variation in vertebrates



Variation in pigmentation is one of the most conspicuous phenotypic traits in vertebrates. Although mammals show less variation in body pigmentation than other vertebrate groups, the genetics of colour determination and variation is best understood for them. More than 150 genes have been identified that influence pigmentation, and in many cases, the cause for variation in pigmentation has been identified down to the underlying nucleotide changes. These studies show that while some genes are often responsible for deviating pigmentation, similar or almost identical phenotypes even in the same species may be due to mutations in different genes. In this review we will first discuss the current knowledge about the genes and their functions underlying the biochemical pathways that determine pigmentation and then give examples where the mutations responsible for colour variation have been determined. Finally, we will discuss potential evolutionary causes for and consequences of differences in pigmentation between individuals.


Adaptation Aposematism Crypsis MC1R Melanin Pigmentation Sensory drive Sexual selection 



We thank Brenda Bradley, Hopi Hoekstra and Ole Seehausen for providing pictures and Regina Querner for help with the figure design. This work was funded by the DFG, the Max Planck Society and the University of York.


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© Springer Basel AG 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  2. 2.Research Group Molecular EcologyMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Biochemistry, Faculty of MedicineUniversity of LeipzigLeipzigGermany

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