Genetics and evolution of colour patterns in reptiles

Mats Olsson, Devi Stuart-Fox, Cissy Ballen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


The study of coloration in the polyphyletic reptilians has flourished in the last two decades, in particular with respect to the underlying genetics of colour traits, the function of colours in social interactions, and ongoing selection on these traits in the wild. The taxonomic bias, however, is profound: at this level of resolution almost all available information is for diurnal lizards. Therefore, we focus on case studies, for which there are as complete causal sequences of colour evolution as possible, from phenotypic expression of variation in colour, to ongoing selection in the wild. For work prior to 1992 and for a broader coverage of reptilian coloration we refer the readers to Cooper and Greenburg's (Biology of the Reptilia, 1992) review. There are seven major conclusions we would like to emphasise: (a) visual systems in diurnal lizards are broadly conserved but among the wider range of reptiles in general, there is functionally important variation in the number and type of photoreceptors, spectral tuning of photopigments and optical properties of the eye; (b) coloration in reptiles is a function of complex interactions between structural and pigmentary components, with implications for both proximate control and condition dependence of colour expression; (c) studies of colour-variable species have enabled estimates of heritability of colour and colour patterns, which often show a simple Mendelian pattern of inheritance; (d) colour-polymorphic lizard species sometimes, but not always, show striking differences in genetically encoded reproductive tactics and provide useful models for studying the evolution and maintenance of polymorphism; (e) both male and female colours are sometimes, but not always, a significant component of socio-sexual signalling, often based on multiple traits; (f) evidence for effects of hormones and condition on colour expression, and trade-offs with immunocompetence and parasite load, is variable; (g) lizards show fading of colours in response to physiological stress and ageing and are hence likely to be appropriate models for work on the interactions between handicaps, indicator traits, parasitology and immunoecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)529-541
Number of pages13
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
Issue number6-7
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Coloration
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Photopigments
  • Polymorphism
  • Reptiles

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Genetics and evolution of colour patterns in reptiles'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this