Evolutionary Tipping Points in the Capacity to Adapt to Environmental Change

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ( ) / by Carlos A. Botero, et al.

[Significance] Environmental variation is becoming more frequent and unpredictable as a consequence of climate change, yet we currently lack the tools to evaluate the extent to which organisms may adapt to this phenomenon. Here we develop a model that explores these issues and use it to study how changes in the timescale and predictability of environmental variation may ultimately affect population viability. Our model indicates that, although populations can often cope with fairly large changes in these environmental parameters, on occasion they will collapse abruptly and go extinct. We characterize the conditions under which these evolutionary tipping points occur and discuss how vulnerability to such cryptic threats may depend on the genetic architecture and life history of the organisms involved.

[Abstract] In an era of rapid climate change, there is a pressing need to understand how organisms will cope with faster and less predictable variation in environmental conditions. Here we develop a unifying model that predicts evolutionary responses to environmentally driven fluctuating selection and use this theoretical framework to explore the potential consequences of altered environmental cycles. We first show that the parameter space determined by different combinations of predictability and timescale of environmental variation is partitioned into distinct regions where a single mode of response (reversible phenotypic plasticity, irreversible phenotypic plasticity, bet-hedging, or adaptive tracking) has a clear selective advantage over all others. We then demonstrate that, although significant environmental changes within these regions can be accommodated by evolution, most changes that involve transitions between regions result in rapid population collapse and often extinction. Thus, the boundaries between response mode regions in our model correspond to evolutionary tipping points, where even minor changes in environmental parameters can have dramatic and disproportionate consequences on population viability. Finally, we discuss how different life histories and genetic architectures may influence the location of tipping points in parameter space and the likelihood of extinction during such transitions. These insights can help identify and address some of the cryptic threats to natural populations that are likely to result from any natural or human-induced change in environmental conditions. They also demonstrate the potential value of evolutionary thinking in the study of global climate change.


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