How stress selects for reversible phenotypic plasticity


W. Gabriel, Department of Biology, Grosshadener Str. 2, D-82152 Planegg-Martinsried, Munich, Germany.
Tel.: 49 89 2180 74202; fax: 49 89 2180 74204;


Stress occurring in periods shorter than life span strongly selects for reversible phenotypic plasticity, for maximum reliability of stress indicating cues and for minimal response delays. The selective advantage of genotypes that are able to produce adaptive reversible plastic phenotypes is calculated by using the concept of environmental tolerance. Analytic expressions are given for optimal values of mode and breadth of tolerance functions for stress induced and non-induced phenotypes depending on (1) length of stress periods, (2) response delay for switching into the induced phenotype, (3) response delay for rebuilding the non-induced phenotype, (4) intensity of stress, i.e. mean value of the stress inducing environment, (5) coefficient of variation of the stress environment and (6) completeness of information available to the stressed organism. Adaptively reversible phenotypic plastic traits will most probably affect fitness in a way that can be described by simultaneous reversible plasticity in mode and breadth of tolerance functions.