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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Nov 7;273(1602):2713-9.

Responding to environmental change: plastic responses vary little in a synchronous breeder.

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Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, King's Buildings, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK.


The impact of environmental change on animal populations is strongly influenced by the ability of individuals to plastically adjust key life-history events. There is therefore considerable interest in establishing the degree of plasticity in traits and how selection acts on plasticity in natural populations. Breeding time is a key life-history trait that affects fitness and recent studies have found that females vary significantly in their breeding time-environment relationships, with selection often favouring individuals exhibiting stronger plastic responses. In contrast, here, we show that although breeding time in the common guillemot, Uria aalge, is highly plastic at the population level in response to a large-scale environmental cue (the North Atlantic Oscillation, NAO), there is very little between-individual variation-most individuals respond to this climate cue very similarly. We demonstrate strong stabilizing selection against individuals who deviate from the average population-level response to NAO. This species differs significantly from those previously studied in being a colonial breeder, in which reproductive synchrony has a substantial impact on fitness; we suggest that counter selection imposed by a need for synchrony could limit individuals in their response and potential for directional selection to act. This demonstrates the importance of considering the relative costs and benefits of highly plastic responses in assessing the likely response of a population to the environmental change.

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