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Are we underestimating the genetic variances of dimorphic traits?


Wolak, Mathew E.
Roff, Derek A.
Fairbairn, Daphne J.


Populations often contain discrete classes or morphs (e.g., sexual dimorphisms, wing dimorphisms, trophic dimorphisms) characterized by distinct patterns of trait expression. In quantitative genetic analyses, the different morphs can be considered as different environments within which traits are expressed. Genetic variances and covariances can then be estimated independently for each morph or in a combined analysis. In the latter case, morphs can be considered as separate environments in a bivariate analysis or entered as fixed effects in a univariate analysis. Although a common approach, we demonstrate that the latter produces downwardly biased estimates of additive genetic variance and heritability unless the quantitative genetic architecture of the traits concerned is perfectly correlated between the morphs. This result is derived for four widely used quantitative genetic variance partitioning methods. Given that theory predicts the evolution of genotype-by-environment (morph) interactions as a consequence of selection favoring different trait combinations in each morph, we argue that perfect correlations between the genetic architectures of the different morphs are unlikely. A sampling of the recent literature indicates that the majority of researchers studying traits expressed in different morphs recognize this and do estimate morph-specific quantitative genetic architecture. However, ca. 16% of the studies in our sample utilized only univariate, fixed-effects models. We caution against this approach and recommend that it be used only if supported by evidence that the genetic architectures of the different morphs do not differ.