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Stabilizing Selection

Stabilizing Selection

If natural selection favors an average phenotype, selecting against extreme variation, the population will undergo stabilizing selection (see the figure below). In a population of mice that live in the woods, for example, natural selection is likely to favor individuals that best blend in with the forest floor and are less likely to be spotted by predators.

Assuming the ground is a fairly consistent shade of brown, those mice whose fur is most closely matched to that color will be most likely to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes for their brown coat. Mice that carry alleles that make them a bit lighter or a bit darker will stand out against the ground and be more likely to fall victim to predation. As a result of this selection, the population’s genetic variance will decrease.

 Part (a) shows a robin clutch size as an example of stabilizing selection. Robins typically lay four eggs. Larger clutches may result in malnourished chicks, while smaller clutches may result in no viable offspring. A wide bell curve indicates that, in the original population, there was a lot of variability in clutch size. Overlaying this wide bell curve is a narrow one that represents the clutch size after natural selection, which is much less variable. Part (b) shows moth color as an example of directional selection. Light-colored pepper moths are better camouflaged against a pristine environment, while dark-colored peppered moths are better camouflaged against a sooty environment. Thus, as the Industrial Revolution progressed in nineteenth-century England, the color of the moth population shifted from light to dark, an example of directional selection. A bell curve representing the original population and one representing the population after natural selection only slightly overlap. Part (c) shows rabbit coat color as an example of diversifying selection. In this hypothetical example, gray and Himalayan (gray and white) rabbits are better able to blend into their rocky environment than white ones. The original population is represented by a bell curve in which white is the most common coat color, while gray and Himalayan colors, on the right and left flank of the curve, are less common. After natural selection, the bell curve splits into two peaks, indicating gray and Himalayan coat color have become more common than the intermediate white coat color.

Different types of natural selection can impact the distribution of phenotypes within a population. In (a) stabilizing selection, an average phenotype is favored. In (b) directional selection, a change in the environment shifts the spectrum of phenotypes observed. In (c) diversifying selection, two or more extreme phenotypes are selected for, while the average phenotype is selected against.

In stabilizing selection, the population mean stabilizes on a particular non-extreme trait value. This is thought to be the most common mechanism of action for natural selection because most traits do not appear to change drastically over time. Stabilizing selection commonly uses negative selection (a.k.a. purifying selection) to select against extreme values of the character. Stabilizing selection is the opposite of disruptive selection. Instead of favoring individuals with extreme phenotypes, it favors the intermediate variants.

Stabilizing selection tends to remove the more severe phenotypes, resulting in the reproductive success of the norm or average phenotypes. This means that most common phenotype in the population is selected for and continues to dominate in future generations. Because most traits change little over time, stabilizing selection is thought to be the most common type of selection in most populations.

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