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Adapting to a Changing Environment: Modeling the Interaction of Directional Selection and Plasticity


Human-induced habitat loss and fragmentation constrains the range of many species, making them unable to respond to climate change by moving. For such species to avoid extinction, they must respond with some combination of phenotypic plasticity and genetic adaptation. Haldane's "cost of natural selection" limits the rate of adaptation, but, although modeling has shown that in very large populations long-term adaptation can be maintained at rates substantially faster than Haldane's suggested limit, maintaining large populations is often an impossibility, so phenotypic plasticity may be crucial in enhancing the long-term survival of small populations. The potential importance of plasticity is in "buying time" for populations subject to directional environmental change: if genotypes can encompass a greater environmental range, then populations can maintain high fitness for a longer period of time. Alternatively, plasticity could be detrimental by lessening the effectiveness of natural selection in promoting genetic adaptation. Here, I modeled a directionally changing environment in which a genotype's adaptive phenotypic plasticity is centered around the environment where its fitness is highest. Plasticity broadens environmental tolerance and, provided it is not too costly, is favored by natural selection. However, a paradoxical result of the individually advantageous spread of plasticity is that, unless the adaptive trait is determined by very few loci, the long-term extinction risk of a population increases. This effect reflects a conflict between the short-term individual benefit of plasticity and a long-term detriment to population persistence, adding to the multiple threats facing small populations under conditions of climate change.

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