Adaptation to an extraordinary environment by evolution of phenotypic plasticity and genetic assimilation


Russell Lande, Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PY, UK.
Tel.: +44 (0)20759 42353; fax: +44 (0)20759 42236;


Adaptation to a sudden extreme change in environment, beyond the usual range of background environmental fluctuations, is analysed using a quantitative genetic model of phenotypic plasticity. Generations are discrete, with time lag τ between a critical period for environmental influence on individual development and natural selection on adult phenotypes. The optimum phenotype, and genotypic norms of reaction, are linear functions of the environment. Reaction norm elevation and slope (plasticity) vary among genotypes. Initially, in the average background environment, the character is canalized with minimum genetic and phenotypic variance, and no correlation between reaction norm elevation and slope. The optimal plasticity is proportional to the predictability of environmental fluctuations over time lag τ. During the first generation in the new environment the mean fitness suddenly drops and the mean phenotype jumps towards the new optimum phenotype by plasticity. Subsequent adaptation occurs in two phases. Rapid evolution of increased plasticity allows the mean phenotype to closely approach the new optimum. The new phenotype then undergoes slow genetic assimilation, with reduction in plasticity compensated by genetic evolution of reaction norm elevation in the original environment.