I'm thinking here about environmental disturbance or like climate change-driven warming. It seems as if there are two macroevolutionary ways to deal with environmental change:

1) Have short generation times, and evolve fast. For instance, the mosquito Wyeomyia smithii is under selection by the warming climate in North America and it has shown an evolutionary repsonse. The response is "detectable over a time interval as short as 5 years" (Bradshaw and Holzapfel 2001).

2) Be hardy, and 'try' to wait out changes. No real-world example to cite, but imagine a long-lived tree growing in an area that has become to warm for its seeds to effectively produce seedlings.

It seems intuitively like strategy 1 is better in the case of ongoing climate warming. However, we could easily imagine a 5-year hot spell followed by a return to the normal as part of natural weather variation. Perhaps in this situation strategy 2 is better.

Essentially, having a longevity/generation time/hardiness that matches the time-scale of the disturbance would be important – if the disturbance is long (or unidirectional) compared to your lifespan, evolving fast seems best; if the disturbance is short compared to your life, it seems best to wait it out.

So the question is, is there theory that deals with this? I suspect that I just need to hit the population genetics books again or something; or perhaps there's a massive tome by Gould I should be reading?


2 Answers 2


If the disturbance is short compared to a species' lifespan, then it's would be difficult for any adaptations to that disturbance to become fixed. Say an individual with a novel mutation is born during the disturbance that would impart some benefit under such conditions; since the species lifespan is much longer than that disturbance, by the time the individual reproduces, the disturbance will no longer be in effect and thus that allele will no longer be beneficial. In fact, this is seen in the thrifty phenotype in humans. When the mother experiences a period of duress during her pregnancy (say, the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944), the fetus will undergo epigenetic changes that signal, in effect, that food is scarce and resources should be used sparingly. When those children grow up, they find themselves no longer under harsh conditions and this thrifty phenotype becomes a disadvantage, causing diabetes, obesity and so on.

If the disturbance is on the order of the lifespan of the species or slightly larger and especially if it is cyclic, polyphenism would be advantageous. This might also impart some resistance against long-term change, at least up to a certain point. For example, the butterfly Bycyclus anynana shows marked differences when born in the cool, dry season versus the warm, wet season: different body mass, different resting metabolic rate, different wing patterns and so on. This is controlled by hormonal switches in response primarily to temperature.

It seems that the best strategy in the face of long-term change would be gradual evolution due to progressive selection on traits that impart resistance to the disruption, at the cost of being vulnerable to future reversions in the conditions.

But of course, none of this can be "planned for" by the species. In the face of a new change in environmental conditions, be it gradual or sudden, the species can only work from its current genetic background. So whether there is a specific theory that deals with this (aside from the examples given above) is not clear. I would think that what we will see with strong-but-gradual climate change is a progressive loss of biodiversity (due to the inability to adapt in time) followed by rapid expansion to fill newly opened niches. To that end, I guess Gould's "Wonderful Life" would be appropriate to read. Any book on Evo Devo would lend insight into understanding how species might be able to rapidly adapt to a slowly changing environment, albeit in an indirect/abstract manner (i.e. "food for thought"); I like Sean B. Carroll's "Endless Forms Most Beautiful".

  • $\begingroup$ I dont understand your reasoning in the first paragraph; a trait that is advantageous under a particular environmental condition will contribute positively to fitness even if the specific conditions only occur in e.g. 10% of all years, as long as the same trait does not cause lower fitness during other/normal years. Therefore, it will be selected for and the trait is likely to increase in freq in the population, even if the disturbance events are much shorter than species' life span. Or are you only considering one-off disturbance events? $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2013 at 14:25

Not exactly matching your question, but I think that the idea (from stochastic demography) that life histories should be buffered against environmental variability in influential vital rates (Pfister, 1998, Morris & Doak, 2004) can be related to this issue, even if it is mainly (originally) dealing with stationary environmental fluctuations.

In general, fluctuations in vital rates cause the stochastic population growth rate to decrease. This can be described by Tuljapurkar's approximation (Tuljapurkar, 1982):

$$log \lambda_s = log \lambda_d - \frac {1}{2\lambda_d^2} \sum_{i,j} V(a_{ij})S^2_{ij}-\phi$$

where $\lambda_s$ is the stochastic growth rate, $\lambda_d$ is the deterministic growth rate based on average conditions, $V(a_{ij})$ is variance in vital rates (here matrix entires) and $S^2_{ij}$ is sensitivity in vital rates. $\phi$ represents covariances between rates, which can be important, but can sometimes be ignored for simplicity. This equation shows that the effect of variability in vital rates on stochastic growth rate (which can be interpreted as a measure of fitness) is a product of sensitivity to change and the amount of variability.

Because of the negative consequences on stochastic population growth, selection is expected to minimize variance in population growth rate. Pfister (1998) predicted (based on an evolutionary argument and the equation above) that a species should have smaller temporal variances in the life history traits it is most sensitive to. Therefore, across species, there should be a negative correlation between the sensitivity and the temporal variance of vital rates. This also means that the evolution of life histories and the tolerance of species to variability in environmental conditions are shaped by their life-history patterns.

A consequence of this is that in a long-lived species (as an example), you should find larger variabilty in juvenile survival than in adult survival, since population growth rate is more sensitive to variability in the latter. The lower variability in adult survival can then be seen as an expression of "hardiness" to variability in environmental conditions, and this theory can therefore be used to understand likely evolutionary trajectories of different species, also under a climate change scenario. The ways to minimize the negative effects of variability in population growth in this theory is to either be hardy in important traits (change in environmental conditions doesn't translate much into variability in vital rate) or to decrease the sensitivity in vital rates that vary a lot (which amounts to modifying the life-history pattern of the species). Your question mainly deals with longevity, and this is influenced by both maturation age and adult survival. Therefore, this theory can be useful to think about which species should develop a "hardy" strategy.

However, this answer completely ignores tipping-points in environmental tolerances, nonlinear responses and the genetic variation that selection can act on.

Related articles you might want to check out are Van de Pool et al (2010), Morris et al. (2008) and Doak et al 2005.


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