Locust phase polyphenism is an extreme form of density-dependent phenotypic plasticity in which solitary and cryptic grasshoppers can transform into gregarious and conspicuous locusts in response to an increase in local population density. We investigated the evolution of this complex phenotypic plasticity in a phylogenetic framework using a morphological phylogeny of Cyrtacanthacridinae, which contains some of the most important locust species, and a comprehensive literature review on the biology and ecology of all known members of the subfamily. A phylogenetic analysis based on 71 morphological characters yielded a well-resolved tree and found that locust phase polyphenism evolved multiple times within the subfamily. The literature review demonstrated that many cyrtacanthacridine species, both locust and sedentary, are capable of expressing density-dependent color plasticity. When this color plasticity was divided into two smaller components, background coloration and development of black pigmentation, and when these plastic traits were optimized on to the phylogeny, we found that the physiological mechanisms underlying this plasticity were plesiomorphic for the subfamily. We also found that different locust species in Cyrtacanthacridinae express both similarities and differences in their locust phase polyphenism. Because locust phase polyphenism is a complex syndrome consisting of numerous plastic traits, we treat it as a composite character and dissected it into smaller components. The similarities among locust species could be attributed to shared ancestry and the differences could be attributed to the certain components of locust phase polyphenism evolving at different rates.
© The Willi Hennig Society 2007.