Genomic analysis reveals a polygenic architecture of antler morphology in wild red deer (Cervus elaphus)



Sexually-selected traits show large variation and rapid evolution across the animal kingdom, yet genetic variation often persists within populations despite apparent directional selection. A key step in solving this long-standing paradox is to determine the genetic architecture of sexually-selected traits to understand evolutionary drivers and constraints at the genomic level. Antlers are a form of sexual weaponry in male red deer. On the island of Rum, Scotland, males with larger antlers have increased breeding success, yet there has been no evidence of any response to selection at the genetic level. To try and understand the mechanisms underlying this observation, we investigate the genetic architecture of ten antler traits and their principal components using genomic data from >38,000 SNPs. We estimate the heritabilities and genetic correlations of the antler traits using a genomic relatedness approach. We then use genome-wide association and haplotype-based regional heritability to identify regions of the genome underlying antler morphology, and an Empirical Bayes approach to estimate the underlying distributions of allele effect sizes. We show that antler morphology is highly repeatable over an individual's lifetime, heritable, and has a polygenic architecture, and that almost all antler traits are positively genetically correlated with some loci identified as having pleiotropic effects. Our findings suggest that a large mutational target and genetic covariances among antler traits, in part maintained by pleiotropy, are likely to contribute to the maintenance of genetic variation in antler morphology in this population.

Data Citation

Peters, L. et al. (2021), Genomic analysis reveals a polygenic architecture of antler morphology in wild red deer (Cervus elaphus), Dryad, Dataset, 10.5061/dryad.612jm643c
Date made available30 Dec 2021

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