Modes of response to environmental change and the elusive empirical evidence for bet hedging

Andrew M. Simons

Abstract

Uncertainty is a problem not only in human decision-making, but is a prevalent quality of natural environments and thus requires evolutionary response. Unpredictable natural selection is expected to result in the evolution of bet-hedging strategies, which are adaptations to long-term fluctuating selection. Despite a recent surge of interest in bet hedging, its study remains mired in conceptual and practical difficulties, compounded by confusion over what constitutes evidence for its existence. Here, I attempt to resolve misunderstandings about bet hedging and its relationship with other modes of response to environmental change, identify the challenges inherent to its study and assess the state of existing empirical evidence. The variety and distribution of plausible bet-hedging traits found across 16 phyla in over 100 studies suggest their ubiquity. Thus, bet hedging should be considered a specific mode of response to environmental change. However, the distribution of bet-hedging studies across evidence categories—defined according to potential strength—is heavily skewed towards weaker categories, underscoring the need for direct appraisals of the adaptive significance of putative bet-hedging traits in nature.

  • Received January 26, 2011.
  • Accepted February 21, 2011.
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