The Princeton Guide to Ecology

By Simon A. Levin | Go to book overview

I.9
Phenotypic Plasticity
Joseph Travis
OUTLINE
1. Introduction
2. The spectrum of phenotypic plasticity
3. The evolution of adaptive plasticity
4. The ecological importance of phenotypic plasticity
5. Horizons for future ecological research on phenotypic plasticity

Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of an individual to express different features under different environmental conditions. Examples of plasticity surround us: plants have broader leaves when grown in shady conditions, and animals are smaller when they develop in crowded conditions. Although some of these changes reflect unavoidable consequences of adverse conditions, many of them are the product of natural selection molding an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a world whose conditions vary from time to time and from place to place. Put another way, many examples of phenotypic plasticity reflect the evolution of a developmental system that attempts to produce different traits under different conditions because no single trait is best suited for all conditions. Plasticity facilitates a species’ ability to occupy a variety of habitats, persist in uncertain environments, and stabilize its interactions with other species whose incidence and numbers change over time and across space.


GLOSSARY

carapace. The hard outer shell surrounding the bodies of small animals such as waterfleas and larger animals such as turtles.

diapause. A state of arrested development in which the animal can survive long periods of challenging conditions such as low temperatures or drought by lying dormant.

ectothermic animals. Animals that use external sources of heat for metabolism and whose rates of metabolism are closely linked to external temperatures, such as invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles.

fitness. The number of offspring an individual leaves behind for the next generation; fitness has two major components, survival (or length of life) and reproductive rate.

numerical stability. A steady-state equilibrium in population size, that is, numbers of individuals, to which a system will return if it is perturbed; stability in predator–prey systems refers to the numerical stability of both predator and prey that allows them to coexist indefinitely.

phenotypic plasticity. The ability of an individual to express different features under different environmental conditions.


1. INTRODUCTION

Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of an individual to express different features under different environmental conditions. This “adaptive plasticity” is one of the most remarkable products of Darwinian evolution. For adaptive plasticity to emerge, the developmental machinery to build different traits must be integrated with a sensory system that detects reliable cues about the prevailing environmental condition so that suitable traits are expressed in a timely manner. Adaptive plasticity is an interesting topic for evolutionary biology, but it is also an important topic in ecology. One reason is that plasticity can enable a species to cope with highly seasonal environments or occupy diverse habitats. But more subtly, plasticity can have a substantial effect on a variety of ecological processes and thereby act as an important influence on which species we see where and at what population sizes.


2. THE SPECTRUM OF PHENOTYPIC PLASTICITY

Phenotypic plasticity can be either reversible or irreversible. The most obvious examples of reversible changes are behavioral responses to environmental conditions. For example, tadpoles change their foraging patterns in response to the presence of predators. When predators

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