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International Journal of Ecology
Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 256017, 12 pages
Review Article

Underappreciated Consequences of Phenotypic Plasticity for Ecological Speciation

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA

Received 25 July 2011; Revised 22 October 2011; Accepted 12 December 2011

Academic Editor: Andrew Hendry

Copyright © 2012 Benjamin M. Fitzpatrick. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Phenotypic plasticity was once seen primarily as a constraint on adaptive evolution or merely a nuisance by geneticists. However, some biologists promote plasticity as a source of novelty and a factor in evolution on par with mutation, drift, gene flow, and selection. These claims are controversial and largely untested, but progress has been made on more modest questions about effects of plasticity on local adaptation (the first component of ecological speciation). Adaptive phenotypic plasticity can be a buffer against divergent selection. It can also facilitate colonization of new niches and rapid divergent evolution. The influence of non-adaptive plasticity has been underappreciated. Non-adaptive plasticity, too can interact with selection to promote or inhibit genetic differentiation. Finally, phenotypic plasticity of reproductive characters might directly influence evolution of reproductive isolation (the second component of ecological speciation). Plasticity can cause assortative mating, but its influence on gene flow ultimately depends on maintenance of environmental similarity between parents and offspring. Examples of plasticity influencing mating and habitat choice suggest that this, too, might be an underappreciated factor in speciation. Plasticity is an important consideration for studies of speciation in nature, and this topic promises fertile ground for integrating developmental biology with ecology and evolution.