Rapid evolution of quantitative traits: theoretical perspectives

Evol Appl. 2014 Jan;7(1):169-91. doi: 10.1111/eva.12127. Epub 2013 Dec 6.


An increasing number of studies demonstrate phenotypic and genetic changes in natural populations that are subject to climate change, and there is hope that some of these changes will contribute to avoiding species extinctions ('evolutionary rescue'). Here, we review theoretical models of rapid evolution in quantitative traits that can shed light on the potential for adaptation to a changing climate. Our focus is on quantitative-genetic models with selection for a moving phenotypic optimum. We point out that there is no one-to-one relationship between the rate of adaptation and population survival, because the former depends on relative fitness and the latter on absolute fitness. Nevertheless, previous estimates that sustainable rates of genetically based change usually do not exceed 0.1 haldanes (i.e., phenotypic standard deviations per generation) are probably correct. Survival can be greatly facilitated by phenotypic plasticity, and heritable variation in plasticity can further speed up genetic evolution. Multivariate selection and genetic correlations are frequently assumed to constrain adaptation, but this is not necessarily the case and depends on the geometric relationship between the fitness landscape and the structure of genetic variation. Similar conclusions hold for adaptation to shifting spatial gradients. Recent models of adaptation in multispecies communities indicate that the potential for rapid evolution is strongly influenced by interspecific competition.

Keywords: Adaptation; climate change; habitat degradation; natural selection and contemporary evolution; phenotypic plasticity; population dynamics; population genetics; quantitative genetics.