Background: It is anticipated that extreme population events, such as extinctions and outbreaks, will become more frequent as a consequence of climate change. To evaluate the increased probability of such events, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms involved. Variation between individuals in their response to climatic factors is an important consideration, especially if microevolution is expected to change the composition of populations.
Methodology/principal findings: Here we present data of a willow leaf beetle species, showing high variation among individuals in oviposition rate at a high temperature (20 °C). It is particularly noteworthy that not all individuals responded to changes in temperature; individuals laying few eggs at 20 °C continued to do so when transferred to 12 °C, whereas individuals that laid many eggs at 20 °C reduced their oviposition and laid the same number of eggs as the others when transferred to 12 °C. When transferred back to 20 °C most individuals reverted to their original oviposition rate. Thus, high variation among individuals was only observed at the higher temperature. Using a simple population model and based on regional climate change scenarios we show that the probability of outbreaks increases if there is a realistic increase in the number of warm summers. The probability of outbreaks also increased with increasing heritability of the ability to respond to increased temperature.
Conclusions/significance: If climate becomes warmer and there is latent variation among individuals in their temperature response, the probability for outbreaks may increase. However, the likelihood for microevolution to play a role may be low. This conclusion is based on the fact that it has been difficult to show that microevolution affect the probability for extinctions. Our results highlight the urge for cautiousness when predicting the future concerning probabilities for extreme population events.