Costs and limits of phenotypic plasticity

Trends Ecol Evol. 1998 Feb 1;13(2):77-81. doi: 10.1016/s0169-5347(97)01274-3.


The costs and limits of phenotypic plasticity are thought to have important ecological and evolutionary consequences, yet they are not as well understood as the benefits of plasticity. At least nine ideas exist regarding how plasticity may be costly or limited, but these have rarely been discussed together. The most commonly discussed cost is that of maintaining the sensory and regulatory machinery needed for plasticity, which may require energy and material expenses. A frequently considered limit to the benefit of plasticity is that the environmental cues guiding plastic development can be unreliable. Such costs and limits have recently been included in theoretical models and, perhaps more importantly, relevant empirical studies now have emerged. Despite the current interest in costs and limits of plasticity, several lines of reasoning suggest that they might be difficult to demonstrate.