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Proc Biol Sci. Mar 22, 2008; 275(1635): 649–659.
Published online Jan 23, 2008. doi:  10.1098/rspb.2007.0997
PMCID: PMC2409451

Keeping up with a warming world; assessing the rate of adaptation to climate change


The pivotal question in the debate on the ecological effects of climate change is whether species will be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with their changing environment. If we establish the maximal rate of adaptation, this will set an upper limit to the rate at which temperatures can increase without loss of biodiversity.

The rate of adaptation will primarily be set by the rate of microevolution since (i) phenotypic plasticity alone is not sufficient as reaction norms will no longer be adaptive and hence microevolution on the reaction norm is needed, (ii) learning will be favourable to the individual but cannot be passed on to the next generations, (iii) maternal effects may play a role but, as with other forms of phenotypic plasticity, the response of offspring to the maternal cues will no longer be adaptive in a changing environment, and (iv) adaptation via immigration of individuals with genotypes adapted to warmer environments also involves microevolution as these genotypes are better adapted in terms of temperature, but not in terms of, for instance, photoperiod.

Long-term studies on wild populations with individually known animals play an essential role in detecting and understanding the temporal trends in life-history traits, and to estimate the heritability of, and selection pressures on, life-history traits. However, additional measurements on other trophic levels and on the mechanisms underlying phenotypic plasticity are needed to predict the rate of microevolution, especially under changing conditions.

Using this knowledge on heritability of, and selection on, life-history traits, in combination with climate scenarios, we will be able to predict the rate of adaptation for different climate scenarios. The final step is to use ecoevolutionary dynamical models to make the link to population viability and from there to biodiversity loss for those scenarios where the rate of adaptation is insufficient.

Keywords: climate change, phenology, microevolution, phenotypic plasticity, intergovernmental panel on climate change, scenarios

Articles from Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences are provided here courtesy of The Royal Society
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