Evol Ecol Res 15: 705-731 (2013)     Full PDF if your library subscribes.

Evolutionary insights from behavioural geography: plasticity, evolution, and responses to rapid environmental change

Susan A. Foster

Department of Biology, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA

Correspondence: S.A. Foster, Department of Biology, Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610, USA.
e-mail: sfoster@clarku.edu


Background: Species with complex phylogeographies often exhibit patterns of behavioural variation that appear to mirror variation in selective pressures, whereas in other cases population differences are not clearly adaptive. The genetic and environmental causes of this variation are diverse, and are likely to vary geographically even when phenotypes are similar.

Questions: How can geographic variation provide insight into fundamental evolutionary processes? In what ways can geographic variation in behaviour provide novel insights into the responses of populations and species to rapid environmental change?

Methods: The threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) comprises, in part, a post-glacial adaptive radiation in which ocean fish have given rise to a diversity of independently derived freshwater populations. Our understanding of the causes of variation in, and the underpinnings of behavioural variation in this radiation is used to provide insights into evolutionary processes and to provide direction for research on the likely evolution of populations in response to rapid environmental change as mediated by behaviour. Behaviour is considered to be of special importance because it exhibits remarkable plasticity that is likely to influence the evolutionary process.

Behaviour and the evolutionary process: The plasticity of behaviour can facilitate or constrain evolution and can enhance population persistence. Patterns of plasticity can evolve, but equally, unexpressed behavioural traits also can persist for long periods, re-emerging as environments change. Re-emergent traits can appear to be novelties, rather than ancient, recently unexpressed traits.

Behaviour and responses to rapid environmental change: Remarkable regional variation in behaviour can exist in widespread, phylogeographically complex populations. Similar phenotypes in different regions can have different genetic and plastic underpinnings, with the outcome that populations in different regions are likely to have different responses to environmental change. Behavioural mediation of evolutionary responses is likely to be difficult to detect but is critical to evaluate.

Keywords: anthropogenic environmental change, behavioural phenotype, contemporary evolution, evolutionary mismatch, geographic variation, phenotypic plasticity.

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