• phenotypic plasticity;
  • contemporary adaptation;
  • genotype × environment interaction;
  • adaptive divergence;
  • genetic assimilation


  • 1
    The role of phenotypic plasticity in evolution has historically been a contentious issue because of debate over whether plasticity shields genotypes from selection or generates novel opportunities for selection to act. Because plasticity encompasses diverse adaptive and non-adaptive responses to environmental variation, no single conceptual framework adequately predicts the diverse roles of plasticity in evolutionary change.
  • 2
    Different types of phenotypic plasticity can uniquely contribute to adaptive evolution when populations are faced with new or altered environments. Adaptive plasticity should promote establishment and persistence in a new environment, but depending on how close the plastic response is to the new favoured phenotypic optimum dictates whether directional selection will cause adaptive divergence between populations. Further, non-adaptive plasticity in response to stressful environments can result in a mean phenotypic response being further away from the favoured optimum or alternatively increase the variance around the mean due to the expression of cryptic genetic variation. The expression of cryptic genetic variation can facilitate adaptive evolution if by chance it results in a fitter phenotype.
  • 3
    We conclude that adaptive plasticity that places populations close enough to a new phenotypic optimum for directional selection to act is the only plasticity that predictably enhances fitness and is most likely to facilitate adaptive evolution on ecological time-scales in new environments. However, this type of plasticity is likely to be the product of past selection on variation that may have been initially non-adaptive.
  • 4
    We end with suggestions on how future empirical studies can be designed to better test the importance of different kinds of plasticity to adaptive evolution.