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Keywords:

  • cost of canalization;
  • cost of plasticity;
  • environmental canalization;
  • meta-analysis;
  • natural selection;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • reaction norm evolution

Abstract

Organisms are capable of an astonishing repertoire of phenotypic responses to the environment, and these often define important adaptive solutions to heterogeneous and unpredictable conditions. The terms ‘phenotypic plasticity’ and ‘canalization’ indicate whether environmental variation has a large or small effect on the phenotype. The evolution of canalization and plasticity is influenced by optimizing selection-targeting traits within environments, but inherent fitness costs of plasticity may also be important. We present a meta-analysis of 27 studies (of 16 species of plant and 7 animals) that have measured selection on the degree of plasticity independent of the characters expressed within environments. Costs of plasticity and canalization were equally frequent and usually mild; large costs were observed only in studies with low sample size. We tested the importance of several covariates, but only the degree of environmental stress was marginally positively related to the cost of plasticity. These findings suggest that costs of plasticity are often weak, and may influence phenotypic evolution only under stressful conditions.