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The genetics of phenotypic plasticity. XV. Genetic assimilation, the Baldwin effect, and evolutionary rescue

Abstract

We used an individual-based simulation model to examine the role of phenotypic plasticity on persistence and adaptation to two patterns of environmental variation, a single, abrupt step change and continual, linear change. Our model tested the assumptions and predictions of the theory of genetic assimilation, explored the evolutionary dynamics of the Baldwin effect, and provided expectations for the evolutionary response to climate change. We found that genetic assimilation as originally postulated is not likely to occur because the replacement of plasticity by fixed genetic effects takes much longer than the environment is likely to remain stable. On the other hand, trait plasticity as an enhancement to continual evolutionary change may be an important evolutionary mechanism as long as plasticity has little or no costs. Whether or not plasticity helps or hinders evolutionary rescue following a step change in the environment depends on whether plasticity is costly. For linear environmental change, noncostly plasticity always decreases extinction rates, while costly plasticity can create a fitness drag and increase the chance of extinction. Thus, with changing climates plasticity can enhance adaptation and prevent extinction under some conditions, but not others.

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