Because of the ubiquity of genetic variation for quantitative traits, virtually all populations have some capacity to respond evolutionarily to selective challenges. However, natural selection imposes demographic costs on a population, and if these costs are sufficiently large, the likelihood of extinction will be high. We consider how the mean time to extinction depends on selective pressures (rate and stochasticity of environmental change, and strength of selection), population parameters (carrying capacity, and reproductive capacity), and genetics (rate of polygenic mutation). We assume that in a randomly mating, finite population subject to density-dependent population growth, individual fitness is determined by a single quantitative-genetic character under Gaussian stabilizing selection with the optimum phenotype exhibiting directional change, or random fluctuations, or both. The quantitative trait is determined by a finite number of freely recombining, mutationally equivalent, additive loci. The dynamics of evolution and extinction are investigated, assuming that the population is initially under mutation-selection-drift balance. Under this model, in a directionally changing environment, the mean phenotype lags behind the optimum, but on the average evolves parallel to it. The magnitude of the lag determines the vulnerability to extinction. In finite populations, stochastic variation in the genetic variance can be quite pronounced, and bottlenecks in the genetic variance temporarily can impair the population's adaptive capacity enough to cause extinction when it would otherwise be unlikely in an effectively infinite population. We find that maximum sustainable rates of evolution or, equivalently, critical rates of environmental change, may be considerably less than 10% of a phenotypic standard deviation per generation.
Keywords: Demographic stochasticity; environmental change; extinction; genetic stochasticity; mutation; quantitative genetics; selection.
© 1995 The Society for the Study of Evolution.