Unmelanized Plumage Patterns in Old World Leaf Warblers Do Not Correspond to Sequence Variation at the Melanocortin-1 Receptor Locus (MC1R)
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Evolutionary changes in patterns and coloration of plumage are likely to represent a major mechanism for speciation among birds, yet the molecular basis for such changes remains poorly understood. Recently much attention has focused on the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) as a candidate locus for determining the level and extent of epidermal melanin deposition. We tested the hypothesis that MC1R sequence variation is associated with interspecific variation in unmelanized plumage pattern elements in Old World leaf warblers (genus Phylloscopus). This genus is characterized by a variety of plumage patterns that nonetheless vary along similar lines. Species vary in the presence or absence of pale (unmelanized) pattern elements against a dark background, and these patterns are used in species recognition and courtship. We sequenced most of the MC1R coding region for eight Phylloscopus species, representing the full range of plumage patterns found in this genus. Although MC1R sequence varied among species, this variation was not related to melanin-based plumage variation. Rather, evolution of this locus in these birds appears to be conservative. Ratios of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitutions (dN/dS) were consistently low, suggesting that strong purifying selection has operated at this locus, and likelihood ratio testing revealed no evidence of variable selective pressures among lineages or across codons. Adaptive evolution at MC1R may be constrained by the adaptive importance of plumage pattern elements in this genus.