Evolution of phenotypic plasticity and environmental change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Summary Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection lies at the centre of evolutionary studies and is particularly relevant today because of the threat posed to species by climate change. Species have evolved by natural selection in environments that have generally changed more slowly than those we are witnessing now and are predicting to experience over the coming decades. The main concern is that the process of natural selection will not be sufficiently rapid to enable populations to adapt to current rapid changes resulting in species that are not equipped to survive in the novel climates, causing a reduction in numbers or even extinction. Natural selection is a phenomenon that acts on individuals, whereby those whose phenotypes (i.e. their physical and behavioural attributes) that are better equipped to exploit environmental conditions will produce more offspring and therefore pass more genes on to the next generation. However, there is a second mechanism by which species can adapt to environmental change that operates within individuals. Individuals may show flexibility in their phenotype in relation to environmental change, a phenomenon known as phenotypic plasticity. A familiar example is the timing of egg laying in birds: individual females adjust their timing each year to coincide with the seasonal peak in food availability. Thus, species may be able to adapt to environmental change simply because individuals adjust relevant aspects of their phenotype. However, these within-individual adjustments alone may also not be sufficient in safeguarding populations from rapid change. It may be necessary for the two phenomena, natural selection and phenotypic plasticity, to work in tandem. This could operate if individuals vary in their phenotypic plasticity, and those individuals that show greater flexibility may have an advantage over those that do not. Thus, in the timing of egg laying example, females that are more flexible will be able to coincide with the peak availability more successfully and therefore produce more offspring than females who do not change. This would result in natural selection for plasticity. If the plasticity of the more flexible individuals is coded in their genes then the population may have the capacity to adapt to rapid climate change. The evolution of phenotypic plasticity in wild populations is a relatively new subject. However, it is critically important to study because it may be a key method by which populations can protect themselves from the potentially damaging effects of the rapid environmental changes that we are seeing today. A greater understanding of the evolution and ecology of phenotypic plasticity will be of interest to evolutionary biologists, population ecologists and behavioural ecologists. However, this work will also benefit conservation and the general public. I will carry out the work on a species of seabird, the European shag, which is currently under threat from human-induced environmental change, principally climate change. Shags are an ideal study species for research on phenotypic plasticity in the wild. However, it is important that we study seabirds for two other reasons. First, they are charismatic species with wide appeal, being some of the most familiar and spectacular sights on visits to the coast. Second, since they are positioned at the top of the food chain, their survival and breeding performance is linked to the abundance of species at lower trophic levels (e.g. fish, plankton). Thus, they offer a reliable, cost-effective monitor of the health of the marine environment. As such it is vital to understand the potential impact of anthropogenic change on their well being.

Publications

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Froy H (2017) Contrasting drivers of reproductive ageing in albatrosses. in The Journal of animal ecology

 
Description 1) A trend in breeding phenology in a population of wandering albatross is being driven by a subset of the population comprising those birds that breed less successfully, whereas the majority of the population have not changed their timing of breeding. These individual changes were related to ageing, demonstrating that a population trend can arise in the absence of environmental change. These results highlight the importance of longitudinal analyses in the interpretation of climate change effects.

2) Individuals show high repeatability of foraging behaviour during the breeding season, but much reduced repeatability after they disperse for the winter. These results suggest that variation amongst individuals is higher when they are confined to a single location (around the breeding colony) and therefore experiencing similar environmental conditions.

3) Female shags increase their foraging time under stronger winds whilst males do not. These sex differences in foraging time have large energetic consequences which can impact on their survival rates. Winds are predicted to become more intense in the future and so these effects are likely to become exacerbated.
Exploitation Route By always accounting for individual differences among individuals when analysing long term data and making predictions about the future.
Sectors Education,Environment

 
Description Media: University of Edinburgh Citizen Science Gannet Survey in collaboration with the Scottish Seabird Centre featured on the BBC Springwatch 2014 website Global media coverage across many media outputs from a press release "Worsening wind forecasts signal stormy times ahead for seabirds" 2015 Global media coverage across several media outputs from a press release "Animals' infections impact on others" 2015 Global media coverage across many media outputs including a radio interview on Radio Scotland from a press release "Wandering albatrosses give parenting final push before they die" 2013 Global media coverage across many media output from a press release "Antarctic albatross displays shift in breeding habits" 2012 School engagement: Presentation to primary school pupils about ecological research 2015, 2014 Public engagement: Edinburgh Science Festival (University of Edinburgh exhibit) 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Antarctic collaborative gearing scheme grant
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID CGS-72 application 
Organisation British Antarctic Survey 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2012 
End 03/2013
 
Description CEH and BAS 
Organisation British Antarctic Survey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I use the CEH longterm dataset and I bought BAS loggers. Both partners will be authors on publications
Collaborator Contribution CEH provide the long term data and BAS provided the loggers at a low cost price.
Impact See my publications
Start Year 2007
 
Description CEH and BAS 
Organisation Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I use the CEH longterm dataset and I bought BAS loggers. Both partners will be authors on publications
Collaborator Contribution CEH provide the long term data and BAS provided the loggers at a low cost price.
Impact See my publications
Start Year 2007
 
Description BBC Springwatch Citizen Science Gannet Survey in collaboration with the Scottish Seabird Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Springwatch Citizen Science Gannet Survey in collaboration with the Scottish Seabird Centre

The BBC highlighted my CS project on their website to attract more interest.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Global Media coverage of publications 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Press releases were written which sparked significant media interest and articles were posted on many national and international news websites, including a radio presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2012,2013,2015
 
Description Interactive seabird project with French secondary school 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Interactive seabird project with French secondary school - question and answer session over email then presented on their website
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Primary School Visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I spoke to 30 children about some ecological research I have carried out in the tropics to enhance their rainforest topic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description School visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I gave a short presentation about seabirds to teach the children about the value of ecological work and we carried out a simple activity which sparked lots of interest among the children and ended by reading them a story.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016
 
Description University of Edinburgh exhibit at the 2015 Edinburgh International Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Seabird exhibit at the 2015 Edinburgh International Science Festival
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014,2015