Plasticity and evolution of species in a changing climate

Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, USA

Easton R. White

Easton R. White

Living in seasonal environments, the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of many animal and plant species depends on the timing of life-history events such as reproduction. This timing depends on factors like snowfall, food availability, and predation pressures, which not only change unpredictably from year to year but may also follow trends caused by climate change. While it is well established that the reproductive timing of many species has advanced in response to climate change, it remains unclear if these responses suffice for population persistence. Two processes allow such responses: phenotypic plasticity, through which an individual’s expressed phenotype is contingent on the environment it experiences, and adaptive evolution, through which the mean phenotype a population expresses shifts so as to enable higher reproductive success. Research on separating the effects of these two processes and determining how they interact has begun only recently. For some species, phenotypic plasticity has shielded them from the effects of climate change, but this raises a range of questions. First, for how long can such shielding continue? Second, what mechanisms might cause it to break down? Third, can such shielding result in a false sense of security on the part of conservation managers? Fourth, what early-warning signals might be available to anticipate break-downs? Fifth, could the shielding eventually be counterproductive, by disabling needed adaptive evolution? Sixth, are there conditions under which the phenotypic plasticity of reproductive timing accelerates needed adaptive evolution? We will investigate these questions using a model incorporating phenotypic plasticity and adaptive evolution in reproductive timing, calibrated from and confronted with field data. Results of these investigations will help us understand and improve the population persistence of species threatened by climate change.

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Last edited: 18 September 2016

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