Among their many contributions to evolutionary biology, anoles have historically been at the forefront of research on sexual dimorphism. Much of the recent work in this area focuses on a very general question – how do males and females express different phenotypes despite sharing essentially the same underlying genome?
Not surprisingly, the answer often depends on the type of scientist you ask. An endocrinologist might say that the development of sexual dimorphism requires hormones such as testosterone and estradiol. A quantitative geneticist might reply that it involves the reduction of genetic correlations between the sexes. A molecular geneticist might view the problem as one of regulating the expression of shared genes differently in each sex. Can anoles help us put these different perspectives together into a unified framework for sexual dimorphism?
To address this question, our lab at the University of Virginia teamed up with Christian Cox (Georgia Southern), Joel McGlothlin (Virginia Tech), and Daren Card, Audra Andrew, and Todd Castoe (University of Texas, Arlington). The full details are available in The American Naturalist, but here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:
We conducted a breeding study on a captive colony of Anolis sagrei, a species in which adult males average nearly three times the mass of females. We found that the extent to which males and females share heritable variation for body size starts out high early in life, but declines rapidly as sexual dimorphism emerges during development.
This breakdown of genetic constraint is mirrored by a sharp increase in the sex-biased expression of hundreds of autosomal genes in the liver, particularly those genes that regulate growth, metabolism, and cell proliferation. In other words, although male and female anoles share most of the same genes, each sex tweaks the expression of these genes in different ways as development progresses.
How do they do it? We also show that some of the patterns of male-specific gene expression that emerge later in life can be induced by treating juvenile females with testosterone. Putting these pieces together, we propose that hormones help male and female anoles regulate their shared genes in different ways, which allows them to attain dramatically different body sizes and also helps break down genetic correlations that would otherwise constrain their independent evolution. We hope that our study encourages other Anolis biologists to continue building connections between evolutionary genetics, developmental biology, and endocrinology!