Strong phenotypic plasticity limits potential for evolutionary responses to climate change

Vicencio Oostra*, Marjo Saastamoinen, Bas J. Zwaan, Christopher W. Wheat

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

56 Citations (Scopus)


Phenotypic plasticity, the expression of multiple phenotypes from one genome, is a widespread adaptation to short-term environmental fluctuations, but whether it facilitates evolutionary adaptation to climate change remains contentious. Here, we investigate seasonal plasticity and adaptive potential in an Afrotropical butterfly expressing distinct phenotypes in dry and wet seasons. We assess the transcriptional architecture of plasticity in a full-factorial analysis of heritable and environmental effects across 72 individuals, and reveal pervasive gene expression differences between the seasonal phenotypes. Strikingly, intra-population genetic variation for plasticity is largely absent, consistent with specialisation to a particular environmental cue reliably predicting seasonal transitions. Under climate change, deteriorating accuracy of predictive cues will likely aggravate maladaptive phenotype-environment mismatches and increase selective pressures on reaction norms. However, the observed paucity of genetic variation for plasticity limits evolutionary responses, potentially weakening prospects for population persistence. Thus, seasonally plastic species may be especially vulnerable to climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1005
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2018


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