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Ecol Evol. 2015 Aug;5(16):3389-400. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1603. Epub 2015 Jul 23.

The ubiquity of phenotypic plasticity in plants: a synthesis.

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Department of Plant Biology, University of Vermont Burlington, Vermont, 05405.
Division of Environmental Biology, National Science Foundation 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Virginia, 22230.


Adaptation to heterogeneous environments can occur via phenotypic plasticity, but how often this occurs is unknown. Reciprocal transplant studies provide a rich dataset to address this issue in plant populations because they allow for a determination of the prevalence of plastic versus canalized responses. From 31 reciprocal transplant studies, we quantified the frequency of five possible evolutionary patterns: (1) canalized response-no differentiation: no plasticity, the mean phenotypes of the populations are not different; (2) canalized response-population differentiation: no plasticity, the mean phenotypes of the populations are different; (3) perfect adaptive plasticity: plastic responses with similar reaction norms between populations; (4) adaptive plasticity: plastic responses with parallel, but not congruent reaction norms between populations; and (5) nonadaptive plasticity: plastic responses with differences in the slope of the reaction norms. The analysis included 362 records: 50.8% life-history traits, 43.6% morphological traits, and 5.5% physiological traits. Across all traits, 52% of the trait records were not plastic, and either showed no difference in means across sites (17%) or differed among sites (83%). Among the 48% of trait records that showed some sort of plasticity, 49.4% showed perfect adaptive plasticity, 19.5% adaptive plasticity, and 31% nonadaptive plasticity. These results suggest that canalized responses are more common than adaptive plasticity as an evolutionary response to environmental heterogeneity.


Adaptive plasticity; canalization; life-history traits; local adaptation; morphological traits; reciprocal transplant studies

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