Maternal genetic effects set the potential for evolution in a free-living vertebrate population

A J Wilson, D W Coltman, J M Pemberton, A D J Overall, K A Byrne, L E B Kruuk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Heritable maternal effects have important consequences for the evolutionary dynamics of phenotypic traits under selection, but have only rarely been tested for or quantified in evolutionary studies. Here we estimate maternal effects on early-life traits in a feral population of Soay sheep (Ovis aries) from St Kilda, Scotland. We then partition the maternal effects into genetic and environmental components to obtain the first direct estimates of maternal genetic effects in a free-living population, and furthermore test for covariance between direct and maternal genetic effects. Using an animal model approach, direct heritabilities (h(2)) were low but maternal genetic effects (m(2)) represented a relatively large proportion of the total phenotypic variance for each trait (birth weight m(2) = 0.119, birth date m(2) = 0.197, natal litter size m(2) = 0.211). A negative correlation between direct and maternal genetic effects was estimated for each trait, but was only statistically significant for natal litter size (r(am) = -0.714). Total heritabilities (incorporating variance from heritable maternal effects and the direct-maternal genetic covariance) were significant for birth weight and birth date but not for natal litter size. Inadequately specified models greatly overestimated additive genetic variance and hence direct h(2) (by a factor of up to 6.45 in the case of birth date). We conclude that failure to model heritable maternal variance can result in over- or under-estimation of the potential for traits to respond to selection, and advocate an increased effort to explicitly measure maternal genetic effects in evolutionary studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-414
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2005


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