Population Genetics

Environmental Variance

Genes are not the only players involved in determining population variation. Other factors, such as the environment (Figure) also influence phenotypes. A beachgoer is likely to have darker skin than a city dweller, for example, due to regular exposure to the sun, an environmental factor. For some species, the environment determines some major characteristics, such as gender. For example, some turtles and other reptiles have temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). TSD means that individuals develop into males if their eggs are incubated within a certain temperature range, or females at a different temperature range.

This photo shows a person holding a baby alligator.
The temperature at which the eggs are incubated determine the American alligator's (Alligator mississippiensis) sex. Eggs incubated at 30°C produce females, and eggs incubated at 33°C produce males. (credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS)

Geographic separation between populations can lead to differences in the phenotypic variation between those populations. We see such geographical variation between most populations and it can be significant. We can observe one type of geographic variation, a cline, as given species' populations vary gradually across an ecological gradient. Species of warm-blooded animals, for example, tend to have larger bodies in the cooler climates closer to the earth’s poles, allowing them to better conserve heat. This is a latitudinal cline. Alternatively, flowering plants tend to bloom at different times depending on where they are along a mountain slope. This is an altitudinal cline.

If there is gene flow between the populations, the individuals will likely show gradual differences in phenotype along the cline. Restricted gene flow, alternatively can lead to abrupt differences, even speciation.