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Physical performance and darwinian fitness in lizards


Strong evidence for a genetic basis of variation in physical performance has accumulated1,2. Considering one of the basic tenets of evolutionary physiology—that physical performance and darwinian fitness are tightly linked3—one may expect phenotypes with exceptional physiological capacities to be promoted by natural selection. Why then does physical performance remain considerably variable in human and other animal populations1,2,4? Our analysis of locomotor performance in the common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) demonstrates that initial endurance (running time to exhaustion measured at birth) is indeed highly heritable, but natural selection in favour of this trait can be unexpectedly weak. A manipulation of dietary conditions unravels a proximate mechanism explaining this pattern. Fully fed individuals experience a marked reversal of performance within only one month after birth: juveniles with low endurance catch up, whereas individuals with high endurance lose their advantage. In contrast, dietary restriction allows highly endurant neonates to retain their locomotor superiority as they age. Thus, the expression of a genetic predisposition to high physical performance strongly depends on the environment experienced early in life.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Fitness functions of initial endurance during the first summer (triangles pointing down) and the whole year (triangles pointing up) following birth.
Figure 3: Ontogenic change in endurance depending on diet and initial endurance.
Figure 4: Fitness functions of initial endurance depending on dietary conditions experienced during the first month following birth (filled circles and solid line, full feeding; open circles and dashed line, dietary restriction).


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We are grateful to A. Badyaev, A. Burke and T. Markow for comments, to P. Cassey, M. Massot, M. Nachman, D. Papaj, M. Saunders and T. van Dooren for discussions, and to J. Cote, B. Decencière, M.-L. Jarzat, M. Le Bris, D. Mersch and S. Testard for assistance. Financial support was received from the French Ministry of Education and Research, the French Ministry of Environment, the European Research Training Network ‘ModLife’, and the NSF Biomath REU programme.

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Correspondence to Jean-François Le Galliard.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Discussion

The Discussion explains that the semi-natural conditions of our enclosures mimic the social selection acting on lizards in the wild. (DOC 23 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

Describes the effect of removing individuals from the original sample on the statistical relationship between morphology and endurance on one side, and annual survival on the other side. (DOC 34 kb)

Supplementary Table S2

Table S2 shows that the relationship between morphology and endurance on one side, and annual survival on the other side is not confounded by the effect of the behavioural motivation. (DOC 36 kb)

Supplementary Table S3

Table S3 shows that the body growth observed under the ‘Full feeding’ treatment matched the body growth observed in the wild during the course of the selection study. (DOC 29 kb)

Supplementary Table S4

The Table S4 illustrates the food delivery per lizard per day during the course of the feeding manipulation. (DOC 31 kb)

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Le Galliard, JF., Clobert, J. & Ferrière, R. Physical performance and darwinian fitness in lizards. Nature 432, 502–505 (2004).

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