The consequences of phenotypic plasticity for ecological speciation


Xavier Thibert-Plante, NIMBioS, 1534 White Avenue, suite 400, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA. Tel.: +1 865 974 4974; fax: +1 865 974 9461; e-mail:


We use an individual-based numerical simulation to study the effects of phenotypic plasticity on ecological speciation. We find that adaptive plasticity evolves readily in the presence of dispersal between populations from different ecological environments. This plasticity promotes the colonization of new environments but reduces genetic divergence between them. We also find that the evolution of plasticity can either enhance or degrade the potential for divergent selection to form reproductive barriers. Of particular importance here is the timing of plasticity in relation to the timing of dispersal. If plasticity is expressed after dispersal, reproductive barriers are generally weaker because plasticity allows migrants to be better suited for their new environment. If plasticity is expressed before dispersal, reproductive barriers are either unaffected or enhanced. Among the potential reproductive barriers we considered, natural selection against migrants was the most important, primarily because it was the earliest-acting barrier. Accordingly, plasticity had a much greater effect on natural selection against migrants than on sexual selection against migrants or on natural and sexual selection against hybrids. In general, phenotypic plasticity can strongly alter the process of ecological speciation and should be considered when studying the evolution of reproductive barriers.