Royal Society Publishing

The role of phenotypic plasticity in driving genetic evolution

Trevor D. Price, Anna Qvarnström, Darren E. Irwin


Models of population divergence and speciation are often based on the assumption that differences between populations are due to genetic factors, and that phenotypic change is due to natural selection. It is equally plausible that some of the differences among populations are due to phenotypic plasticity. We use the metaphor of the adaptive landscape to review the role of phenotypic plasticity in driving genetic evolution. Moderate levels of phenotypic plasticity are optimal in permitting population survival in a new environment and in bringing populations into the realm of attraction of an adaptive peak. High levels of plasticity may increase the probability of population persistence but reduce the likelihood of genetic change, because the plastic response itself places the population close to a peak. Moderate levels of plasticity arise whenever multiple traits, some of which are plastic and others not, form a composite trait involved in the adaptive response. For example, altered behaviours may drive selection on morphology and physiology. Because there is likely to be a considerable element of chance in which behaviours become established, behavioural change followed by morphological and physiological evolution may be a potent force in driving evolution in novel directions. We assess the role of phenotypic plasticity in stimulating evolution by considering two examples from birds: (i) the evolution of red and yellow plumage coloration due to carotenoid consumption; and (ii) the evolution of foraging behaviours on islands. Phenotypic plasticity is widespread in nature and may speed up, slow down, or have little effect on evolutionary change. Moderate levels of plasticity may often facilitate genetic evolution but careful analyses of individual cases are needed to ascertain whether plasticity has been essential or merely incidental to population differentiation.

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