Range expansion can promote the evolution of plastic generalism in coarse-grained landscapes

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Oxford University Press


Phenotypic plasticity is one way for organisms to deal with variable environments through generalism. However, plasticity is not found universally and its evolution may be constrained by costs and other limitations such as complexity: the need for multiple mutational steps before the adaptation is realized. Theory predicts that greater experienced heterogeneity, such as organisms may encounter when spatial heterogeneity is fine-grained relative to dispersal, should favor the evolution of a broader niche. Here we tested this prediction via simulation. We found that, contrary to classical predictions, coarse-grained landscapes can be the most favorable for the evolution of plasticity, but only when populations encounter those landscapes through range expansion. During these range expansions, coarse-grained landscapes select for each step in the complex mutational pathway to plastic generalism by blocking the dispersal of specialists. These circumstances provide ecological opportunities for innovative mutations that change the niche. Our results indicate a new mechanism by which range expansion and spatially structured landscapes interact to shape evolution and reveal that the environments in which a complex adaptation has the highest fitness may not be the most favorable for its evolution.



range expansion, phenotypic plasticity, complex adaptation, pleiotropy, constraints