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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Jul 22;272(1571):1415-25.

Environmental quality and evolutionary potential: lessons from wild populations.

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Department of Zoology, Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.


An essential requirement to determine a population's potential for evolutionary change is to quantify the amount of genetic variability expressed for traits under selection. Early investigations in laboratory conditions showed that the magnitude of the genetic and environmental components of phenotypic variation can change with environmental conditions. However, there is no consensus as to how the expression of genetic variation is sensitive to different environmental conditions. Recently, the study of quantitative genetics in the wild has been revitalized by new pedigree analyses based on restricted maximum likelihood, resulting in a number of studies investigating these questions in wild populations. Experimental manipulation of environmental quality in the wild, as well as the use of naturally occurring favourable or stressful environments, has broadened the treatment of different taxa and traits. Here, we conduct a meta-analysis on recent studies comparing heritability in favourable versus unfavourable conditions in non-domestic and non-laboratory animals. The results provide evidence for increased heritability in more favourable conditions, significantly so for morphometric traits but not for traits more closely related to fitness. We discuss how these results are explained by underlying changes in variance components, and how they represent a major step in our understanding of evolutionary processes in wild populations. We also show how these trends contrast with the prevailing view resulting mainly from laboratory experiments on Drosophila. Finally, we underline the importance of taking into account the environmental variation in models predicting quantitative trait evolution.

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