The ability of animals to sync the timing and location of molting (the replacement of hair, skin, exoskeletons or feathers) with peaks in resource availability has important implications for their ecology and evolution. In migratory birds, the timing and location of pre-migratory feather molting, a period when feathers are shed and replaced with newer, more aerodynamic feathers, can vary within and between species. While hypotheses to explain the evolution of intraspecific variation in the timing and location of molt have been proposed, little is known about the genetic basis of this trait or the specific environmental drivers that may result in natural selection for distinct molting phenotypes. Here we take advantage of intraspecific variation in the timing and location of molt in the iconic songbird, the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) to investigate the genetic and ecological drivers of distinct molting phenotypes. Specifically, we use genome-wide genetic sequencing in combination with stable isotope analysis to determine population genetic structure and molting phenotype across thirteen breeding sites. We then use genome-wide association analysis (GWAS) to identify a suite of genes associated with molting and pair this with gene-environment association analysis (GEA) to investigate potential environmental drivers of genetic variation in this trait. Associations between genetic variation in molt-linked genes and the environment are further tested via targeted SNP genotyping in 25 additional breeding populations across the range. Together, our integrative analysis suggests that molting is in part regulated by genes linked to feather development and structure (GLI2 and CSPG4) and that genetic variation in these genes is associated with seasonal variation in precipitation and aridity. Overall, this work provides important insights into the genetic basis and potential selective forces behind phenotypic variation in what is arguably one of the most important fitness-linked traits in a migratory bird.
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