Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover (TiHo)

Adaptive and nonadaptive plasticity in changing environments : implications for sexual species with different life history strategies

Abstract

Populations adapt to novel environmental conditions by genetic changes or phenotypic plasticity. Plastic responses are generally faster and can buffer fitness losses under variable conditions. Plasticity is typically modeled as random noise and linear reaction norms that assume simple one-to-one genotype–phenotype maps and no limits to the phenotypic response. Most studies on plasticity have focused on its effect on population viability. However, it is not clear, whether the advantage of plasticity depends solely on environmental fluctuations or also on the genetic and demographic properties (life histories) of populations. Here we present an individual-based model and study the relative importance of adaptive and nonadaptive plasticity for populations of sexual species with different life histories experiencing directional stochastic climate change. Environmental fluctuations were simulated using differentially autocorrelated climatic stochasticity or noise color, and scenarios of directional climate change. Nonadaptive plasticity was simulated as a random environmental effect on trait development, while adaptive plasticity as a linear, saturating, or sinusoidal reaction norm. The last two imposed limits to the plastic response and emphasized flexible interactions of the genotype with the environment. Interestingly, this assumption led to (a) smaller phenotypic than genotypic variance in the population (many-to-one genotype–phenotype map) and the coexistence of polymorphisms, and (b) the maintenance of higher genetic variation—compared to linear reaction norms and genetic determinism—even when the population was exposed to a constant environment for several generations. Limits to plasticity led to genetic accommodation, when costs were negligible, and to the appearance of cryptic variation when limits were exceeded. We found that adaptive plasticity promoted population persistence under red environmental noise and was particularly important for life histories with low fecundity. Populations producing more offspring could cope with environmental fluctuations solely by genetic changes or random plasticity, unless environmental change was too fast.

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