Comparative transcriptomics of seasonal phenotypic flexibility in two North American songbirds

Z. A. Cheviron, D. L. Swanson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Phenotypic flexibility allows organisms to reversibly alter their phenotypes to match the changing demands of seasonal environments. Because phenotypic flexibility is mediated, at least in part, by changes in gene regulation, comparative transcriptomic studies can provide insights into the mechanistic underpinnings of seasonal phenotypic flexibility, and the extent to which regulatory responses to changing seasons are conserved across species. To begin to address these questions, we sampled individuals of two resident North American songbird species, American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) and black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) in summer and winter to measure seasonal variation in pectoralis transcriptomic profiles and to identify conserved and species-specific elements of these seasonal profiles. We found that very few genes exhibited divergent responses to changes in season between species, and instead, a core set of over 1200 genes responded to season concordantly in both species. Moreover, several key metabolic pathways, regulatory networks, and gene functional classes were commonly recruited to induce seasonal phenotypic shifts in these species. The seasonal transcriptomic responses mirror winter increases in pectoralis mass and cellular metabolic intensity documented in previous studies of both species, suggesting that these seasonal phenotypic responses are due in part to changes in gene expression. Despite growing evidence of muscle nonshivering thermogenesis (NST) in young precocial birds, we did not find strong evidence of upregulation of genes putatively involved in NST during winter in either species, suggesting that seasonal modification of muscular NST is not a prominent contributor to winter increases in thermogenic capacity for adult passerine birds. Together, these results provide the first comprehensive overview of potential common regulatory mechanisms underlying seasonally flexible phenotypes in wild, free-ranging birds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1040-1054
Number of pages15
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 1 2017


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