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The Demographic Transition Influences Variance in Fitness and Selection on Height and BMI in Rural Gambia

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  • Ecology
  • Geography


Recent human history is marked by demographic transitions characterized by declines in mortality and fertility [1]. By influencing the variance in those fitness components, demographic transitions can affect selection on other traits [2]. Parallel to changes in selection triggered by demography per se, relationships between fitness and anthropometric traits are also expected to change due to modification of the environment. Here we explore for the first time these two main evolutionary consequences of demographic transitions using a unique data set containing survival, fertility, and anthropometric data for thousands of women in rural Gambia from 1956-2010 [3]. We show how the demographic transition influenced directional selection on height and body mass index (BMI). We observed a change in selection for both traits mediated by variation in fertility: selection initially favored short females with high BMI values but shifted across the demographic transition to favor tall females with low BMI values. We demonstrate that these differences resulted both from changes in fitness variance that shape the strength of selection and from shifts in selective pressures triggered by environmental changes. These results suggest that demographic and environmental trends encountered by current human populations worldwide are likely to modify, but not stop, natural selection in humans.

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