The evolutionary ecology of individual phenotypic plasticity in wild populations


Daniel H. Nussey, Large Animal Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK. Tel.: 0044 (0)1223 336673; fax: 0044 (0)1223 336676;


The ability of individual organisms to alter morphological and life-history traits in response to the conditions they experience is an example of phenotypic plasticity which is fundamental to any population's ability to deal with short-term environmental change. We currently know little about the prevalence, and evolutionary and ecological causes and consequences of variation in life history plasticity in the wild. Here we outline an analytical framework, utilizing the reaction norm concept and random regression statistical models, to assess the between-individual variation in life history plasticity that may underlie population level responses to the environment at both phenotypic and genetic levels. We discuss applications of this framework to date in wild vertebrate populations, and illustrate how natural selection and ecological constraint may alter a population's response to the environment through their effects at the individual level. Finally, we present future directions and challenges for research into individual plasticity.