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Phenotypic plasticity as a cause and consequence of population dynamics
Ecology Letters  (IF9.492),  Pub Date : 2021-08-19, DOI: 10.1111/ele.13862
Dominic P. Brass, Christina A. Cobbold, David A. Ewing, Bethan V. Purse, Amanda Callaghan, Steven M. White

Predicting complex species-environment interactions is crucial for guiding conservation and mitigation strategies in a dynamically changing world. Phenotypic plasticity is a mechanism of trait variation that determines how individuals and populations adapt to changing and novel environments. For individuals, the effects of phenotypic plasticity can be quantified by measuring environment–trait relationships, but it is often difficult to predict how phenotypic plasticity affects populations. The assumption that environment–trait relationships validated for individuals indicate how populations respond to environmental change is commonly made without sufficient justification. Here we derive a novel general mathematical framework linking trait variation due to phenotypic plasticity to population dynamics. Applying the framework to the classical example of Nicholson's blowflies, we show how seemingly sensible predictions made from environment–trait relationships do not generalise to population responses. As a consequence, trait-based analyses that do not incorporate population feedbacks risk mischaracterising the effect of environmental change on populations.