Adaptive phenotypic plasticity and the successful colonization of a novel environment

Am Nat. 2004 Oct;164(4):531-42. doi: 10.1086/423825. Epub 2004 Sep 10.


Behavior and other forms of phenotypic plasticity potentially enable individuals to deal with novel situations. This implies that establishment of a population in a new environment is aided by plastic responses, as first suggested by Baldwin (1896). In the early 1980s, a small population of dark-eyed juncos from a temperate, montane environment became established in a Mediterranean climate in coastal San Diego. The breeding season of coastal juncos is more than twice as long as that of the ancestral population, and they fledge approximately twice as many young. We investigated the adaptive significance of the longer breeding season and its consequences for population persistence. Within the coastal population, individuals with longer breeding seasons have higher offspring production and recruitment, with no measured detrimental effects such as higher mortality or lower reproductive success the following year. Population size has remained approximately constant during the 6 years of study (1998-2003). The increase in reproductive effort in the coastal population contributes substantially to the persistence of this population because there is no evidence of density-dependent recruitment, which would otherwise negate the effects of increased fledgling production. These results provide the first quantitative support of Baldwin's proposition that plasticity can be crucial for population persistence during the early stages of colonization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Breeding*
  • Climate
  • Ecosystem*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Nesting Behavior
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Periodicity*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal*
  • Time Factors