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Although specific genes involved in animal coloration have been identified, the underlying selection for genetic variation in color-specific adaptation is not well understood. Examining the Agouti gene and other loci in the deer mice of Nebraska, where predation selects for light-colored mice in light environments and dark-colored mice in dark environments, Linnen et al. (p. 1312) find evidence of multiple genetic variants under selection affecting coloration. The light color of Sand Hills mice is not the result of a single large-effect mutation, but is because of many accumulated mutations, each with a smaller phenotypic effect.
The identification of precise mutations is required for a complete understanding of the underlying molecular and evolutionary mechanisms driving adaptive phenotypic change. Using plasticine models in the field, we show that the light coat color of deer mice that recently colonized the light-colored soil of the Nebraska Sand Hills provides a strong selective advantage against visually hunting predators. Color variation in an admixed population suggests that this light Sand Hills phenotype is composed of multiple traits. We identified distinct regions within the Agouti locus associated with each color trait and found that only haplotypes associated with light trait values have evidence of selection. Thus, local adaptation is the result of independent selection on many mutations within a single locus, each with a specific effect on an adaptive phenotype, thereby minimizing pleiotropic consequences.