The wealth of information on the genetics of pigmentation and the clear fitness consequences of many pigmentation phenotypes provide an opportunity to study the molecular basis of an ecologically important trait. The melanocortin-1 receptor (Mc1r) is responsible for intraspecific color variation in mammals and birds. Here, we study the molecular evolution of Mc1r and investigate its role in adaptive intraspecific color differences in reptiles. We sequenced the complete Mc1r locus in seven phylogenetically diverse squamate species with melanic or blanched forms associated with different colored substrates or thermal environments. We found that patterns of amino acid substitution across different regions of the receptor are similar to the patterns seen in mammals, suggesting comparable levels of constraint and probably a conserved function for Mc1r in mammals and reptiles. We also found high levels of silent-site heterozygosity in all species, consistent with a high mutation rate or large long-term effective population size. Mc1r polymorphisms were strongly associated with color differences in Holbrookia maculata and Aspidoscelis inornata. In A. inornata, several observations suggest that Mc1r mutations may contribute to differences in color: (1) a strong association is observed between one Mc1r amino acid substitution and dorsal color; (2) no significant population structure was detected among individuals from these populations at the mitochondrial ND4 gene; (3) the distribution of allele frequencies at Mc1r deviates from neutral expectations; and (4) patterns of linkage disequilibrium at Mc1r are consistent with recent selection. This study provides comparative data on a nuclear gene in reptiles and highlights the utility of a candidate-gene approach for understanding the evolution of genes involved in vertebrate adaptation.
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Vol. 58 • No. 8