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J Exp Biol. 2006 Jun;209(Pt 12):2368-76.

Phenotypic plasticity, sexual selection and the evolution of colour patterns.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


When a population comes to occupy a new environment, phenotypically plastic responses alter the distribution of phenotypes, and hence affect both the direction and the intensity of selection. Rates of evolution can be accelerated or retarded compared to what would happen in the absence of plasticity. Plastic responses in one trait result in novel selection pressures on other traits, and this can lead to evolution in completely different directions than predicted in the absence of plasticity. In this paper I use the concept of the adaptive surface in order to identify conditions under which the various different outcomes are expected. I then discuss differences between sexually and naturally selected traits. Sexually selected traits are often expected to be plastic in their expression, with individuals in high condition developing greater elaboration. As examples of sexually selected traits I review the evolution of colour patterns in birds with a view to assessing the magnitude of plastic responses in their development, and to ask how such responses may have influenced genetic evolution. The common colour pigments in birds are carotenoids and melanins. Both are used in social signaling, and consequently are expected to evolve to be phenotypically plastic indicators of an individual's quality. Perhaps partly because they are condition indicators, the quantity of carotenoids in the plumage can be strongly influenced by diet. Examples are described where alterations of carotenoids in the diet are thought to have altered the phenotype, driving genetic evolution in novel directions. Melanin patterns seem to be less affected by diet, but the intensity of melanization after moult is affected by social interactions during the moult and by raising birds in humid conditions. Hormonal manipulations can have dramatic effects on both the kinds of melanin produced (eumelanin or phaeomelanin) as well as the patterns they form. Differences between species in melanin patterns resemble differences produced by environmental manipulations, as well as those produced by simple modulations of parameters in computer simulations of pattern formation. While phenotypic plasticity is one way that genetic change in plumage patterns (and other traits) could be driven, there are others, including the appearance of major mutations and selection on standing variation whose distribution is not altered in the new environment. I consider some evidence for the different alternatives, and ask when they might lead to qualitatively different evolutionary outcomes.

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