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29 Nov 2023
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Individual differences in developmental trajectory leave a male polyphenic signature in bulb mite populations

What determines whether to scramble or fight in male bulb mites

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

A classic textbook example in evolutionary ecology for phenotypic plasticity—the expression of different phenotypes by a genotype under different environmental conditions—is on Daphnia (Dodson 1989). If various species of this small crustacean are exposed to predation risk or cues thereof, their offspring show induced defense phenotypes including helmets, neck teeth, or head- and tail-spines. These induced morphological changes lower the risk of being eaten by a predator. As in Daphnia, induction can span over generations, while other induced phenotypic plastic changes are almost instantaneous, including many responses in physiology and behaviour (Gabriel et al. 2005). 

Larvae male bulb mites also show plasticity in morphologies throughout development. They can develop into a costly adult fighter morphology or a less costly, but vulnerable, scrambler type. The question Deere and Smallegange (Deere & Smallegange 2023) address is whether male bulb mite larvae can anticipate which type will likely be adaptive once they become adult, or alternatively, whether the resource availability or population density they experience during their larvae phase determines frequencies of adult scrambler and fighter types. They explore this question through experimental evolution, by removing different fractions of developing intermediate larva types. They thereby manipulate the stage structure of populations and alter selective forces on these stages. The potential shift of fixed genetics, imposed by the experimental selection regimes, is evaluated by fitness assays in green garden experiments.

The exciting extension to classical experiments on phenotypic plasticity is that the authors aim at exploring eco-evolutionary feedbacks experimentally in a system that is a little more complex than basic host-parasite or predator-prey systems. The latter involve, for instance, rotifer-algae dynamics (Yoshida et al. 2003; Becks et al. 2012) or similar simple lab systems for which eco-evolutionary feedbacks have been demonstrated. The challenge for the exploration of more complex systems is revealed in the study by Deere and Smallegange. Their findings suggest that the frequencies of adult male morphotype is triggered by the environmental condition (nutrient availability) during the larval phase, i.e. a simple environmental induced plastic response. No fixed genetic shift in determining adult morphotype frequencies occurs. The trigger at the larva phase remains also not perfectly determined in their experiments, as population density and resource (food) availability are partly confounded. Additional complexity and selective aspects come into play in this system, as the targeted developmental stages that develop into fighter male morphs are also dispersal morphs. If selection on dispersal to avoid residing in food-limited environments is strong, triggering genetic shifts in fighter morphs by local population structure might be hard to experimentally achieve. Small sample sizes limit conclusions on complex interactions among duration of the experiment, population size, developmental stage types, and adult fighter frequencies. The presented study (Deere & Smallegange 2023) helps to bridge theoretical predictions and empirical evidence for eco-evolutionary feedbacks that goes beyond simple ecological-driven changes in population dynamics (Govaert et al. 2019).  




Becks, L., Ellner, S.P., Jones, L.E. & Hairston, N.G. (2012). The functional genomics of an eco-evolutionary feedback loop: linking gene expression, trait evolution, and community dynamics. Ecol. Lett., 15, 492-501.
Deere, J.A. & Smallegange, I.M. (2023). Individual differences in developmental trajectory leave a male polyphenic signature in bulb mite populations. bioRxiv, 2023.02.06.527265, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.
Dodson, S. (1989). Predator-induced Reaction Norms. Bioscience, 39, 447-452.
Gabriel, W., Luttbeg, B., Sih, A. & Tollrian, R. (2005). Environmental tolerance, heterogeneity, and the evolution of reversible plastic responses. Am. Nat., 166, 339-53.
Govaert, L., Fronhofer, E.A., Lion, S., Eizaguirre, C., Bonte, D., Egas, M., et al. (2019). Eco-evolutionary feedbacks-Theoretical models and perspectives. Funct. Ecol., 33, 13-30.
Yoshida, T., Jones, L.E., Ellner, S.P., Fussmann, G.F. & Hairston, N.G. (2003). Rapid evolution drives ecological dynamics in a predator-prey system. Nat. 2003 4246946, 424, 303-306.

Individual differences in developmental trajectory leave a male polyphenic signature in bulb mite populationsJacques A. Deere & Isabel M. Smallegange<p style="text-align: justify;">Developmental plasticity alters phenotypes and can in that way change the response to selection. When alternative phenotypes show different life history trajectories, developmental plasticity can also affect, and be...Evolutionary Ecology, Life History, Phenotypic Plasticity, Sexual SelectionUlrich Karl Steiner2023-02-07 12:14:33 View
29 Nov 2023
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Does sociality affect evolutionary speed?

On the evolutionary implications of being a social animal

Recommended by based on reviews by Rafael Lucas Rodriguez and 1 anonymous reviewer

What does it mean to be highly social?  Considering the so-called four ‘pinnacles’ of animal society (Wilson, 1975) – humans, cooperative breeding as found in some non-human mammals and birds, the social insects, and colonial marine invertebrates – having inter-individual relations extending beyond the sexual pair and the parent-offspring interaction is foremost.  In many cases being social implies a high local population density, interaction with the same group of individuals over an extended time period, and an overlapping of generations.  Additional features of social species may be a wide geographical range, perhaps associated with ecological and behavioral plasticity, the latter often facilitated by cultural transmission of traditions.  

Narrowing our perspective to the domain of PCI Evolutionary Biology, we might continue our question by asking whether being social predisposes one to a special evolutionary path toward the future.  Do social species evolve faster (or slower) than their more solitary relatives such that over time they are more unlike (or similar to) those relatives (anagenesis)?  And are evolutionary changes in social species more or less likely to be accompanied by lineage splitting (cladogenesis) and ultimately speciation?  The latter question is parallel to one first posed over 40 years ago (West-Eberhard, 1979; Lande, 1981) for sexually selected traits:  Do strong mating preferences and conspicuous courtship signals generate speciation via the Fisherian process or ecological divergence?  An extensive survey of birds had found little supporting evidence (Price, 1998), but a recent one that focused on plumage complexity in tanagers did reveal a relationship, albeit a weak one (Price-Waldman et al., 2020).  Because sexual selection has been viewed as a part of the broader process of social selection (West-Eberhard, 1979), it is thus fitting to extend our surveys to the evolutionary implications of being social.

Unlike the inquiry for a sexual selection - evolutionary change connection, a social behavior counterpart has remained relatively untreated.  Diverse logistical problems might account for this oversight.  What objective proxies can be used for social behavior, and for the rate of evolutionary change within a lineage?  How many empirical studies have generated data from which appropriate proxies could be extracted?  More intractable is the conundrum arising from the connectedness between socially- and sexually-selected traits.  For example, the elevated population density found in highly social species can greatly increase the mating advantage enjoyed by an attractive male.  If anagenesis is detected, did it result from social behavior or sexual selection?  And if social behavior leads to a group structure in which male-male competition is reduced, would a modest rate of evolutionary change be support for the sexual selection - evolutionary speed connection or evidence opposing the sociality - evolution one?

Against the above odds, several biologists have begun to explore the notion that social behavior just might favor evolutionary speed in either anagenesis or cladogenesis.  In a recent analysis relying on the comparative method, Lluís Socias-Martínez and Louise Rachel Peckre (2023) combed the scientific literature archives and identified those studies with specific data on the relationships between sexual selection or social behavior and evolutionary change, either anagenesis or cladogenesis.  The authors were careful to employ fairly conservative criteria for including studies, and the number eventually retained was small.  Nonetheless, some patterns emerge:  Many more studies report anagenesis than cladogenesis, and many more report correlations with sexually-selected traits than with non-sexual social behavior ones.  And, no study indicates a potential effect of social behavior on cladogenesis.  Is this latter observation authentic or an artifact of a paucity of data?  There are some a priori reasons why cladogenesis may seldom arise.  Whereas highly social behavior could lead to fission encompassing mutually isolated population clusters within a species, social behavior may also engender counterbalancing plasticity that allows and even promotes inter-cluster migration and fusion.  And briefly – and non-systematically, as the rate of lineage splitting would need to be measured – looking at one of the pinnacles of animal social behavior, the social insects, there is little indication that diversification has been accelerated.  There are fewer than 3000 described species of termites, only ca. 16,000 ants, and the vast majority of bees and wasps are solitary.                            

Lluís Socias-Martínez and Louise Rachel Peckre provide us with a very detailed discussion of these and a myriad of other complications.  I end with a common refrain, we need more consideration of the authors’ interesting question, and much more data and analysis.  One can thank Socias-Martínez and Peckre for pointing us in that direction.


Lande, R. (1981). Models of speciation by sexual selection on polygenic traits. Proc. Natn. Acad. Sci. USA 78, 3721-3725.

Price, T. (1998). Sexual selection and natural selection in bird speciation. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B, 353, 251-260.  

Price‐Waldman, R. M., Shultz, A. J., & Burns, K. J. (2020). Speciation rates are correlated with changes in plumage color complexity in the largest family of songbirds. Evolution, 74(6), 1155–1169.

Socias-Martínez and Peckre. (2023). Does sociality affect evolutionary speed? Zenodo, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.

West-Eberhard, M. J. (1979). Sexual selection, social competition, and evolution. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 123(4), 222–234.

Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology. The New Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University

Does sociality affect evolutionary speed?Lluís Socias-Martínez, Louise Rachel Peckre<p>An overlooked source of variation in evolvability resides in the social lives of animals. In trying to foster research in this direction, we offer a critical review of previous work on the link between evolutionary speed and sociality. A first ...Behavior & Social Evolution, Evolutionary Dynamics, Evolutionary Theory, Genome Evolution, Macroevolution, Molecular Evolution, Population Genetics / Genomics, Sexual Selection, SpeciationMichael D Greenfield2023-03-03 00:10:49 View
20 Nov 2023
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Phenotypic stasis with genetic divergence

Phenotypic stasis despite genetic divergence and differentiation in Caenorhabditis elegans.

Recommended by ORCID_LOGO based on reviews by Benoit Pujol and Pedro Simões

Explaining long periods of evolutionary stasis, the absence of change in trait means over geological times, despite the existence of abundant genetic variation in most traits has challenged evolutionary theory since Darwin's theory of evolution by gradual modification (Estes & Arnold 2007). Stasis observed in contemporary populations is even more daunting since ample genetic variation is usually coupled with the detection of selection differentials (Kruuk et al. 2002, Morrissey et al. 2010). Moreover, rapid adaptation to environmental changes in contemporary populations, fuelled by standing genetic variation provides evidence that populations can quickly respond to an adaptive challenge. Explanations for evolutionary stasis usually invoke stabilizing selection as a main actor, whereby optimal trait values remain roughly constant over long periods of time despite small-scale environmental fluctuations. Genetic correlation among traits may also play a significant role in constraining evolutionary changes over long timescales (Schluter 1996). Yet, genetic constraints are rarely so strong as to completely annihilate genetic changes, and they may evolve. Patterns of genetic correlations among traits, as captured in estimates of the G-matrix of additive genetic co-variation, are subject to changes over generations under the action of drift, migration, or selection, among other causes (Arnold et al. 2008). Therefore, under the assumption of stabilizing selection on a set of traits, phenotypic stasis and genetic divergence in patterns of trait correlations may both be observed when selection on trait correlations is weak relative to its effect on trait means.

Mallard et al. (2023) set out to test whether selection or drift may explain the divergence in genetic correlation among traits in experimental lines of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and whether stabilizing selection may be a driver of phenotypic stasis. To do so, they analyzed the evolution of locomotion behavior traits over 100 generations of lab evolution in a constant and homogeneous environment after 140 generations of domestication from a largely differentiated set of founder populations. The locomotion traits were transition rates between movement states and direction (still, forward or backward movement). They could estimate the traits' broad-sense G-matrix in three populations at two generations (50 and 100), and in the ancestral mixed population. Similarly, they estimated the shape of the selection surface by regressing locomotion behavior on fertility. Armed with both G-matrix and surface estimates, they could test whether the G's orientation matched selection's orientation and whether changes in G were constrained by selection. They found stasis in trait mean over 100 generations but divergence in the amount and orientation of the genetic variation of the traits relative to the ancestral population. The selected populations changed orientation of their G-matrices and lost genetic variation during the experiment in agreement with a model of genetic drift on quantitative traits. Their estimates of selection also point to mostly stabilizing selection on trait combinations with weak evidence of disruptive selection, suggesting a saddle-shaped selection surface. The evolutionary responses of the experimental populations were mostly consistent with small differentiation in the shape of G-matrices during the 100 generations of stabilizing selection.

Mallard et al. (2023) conclude that phenotypic stasis was maintained by stabilizing selection and drift in their experiment. They argue that their findings are consistent with a "table-top mountain" model of stabilizing selection, whereby the population is allowed some wiggle room around the trait optimum, leaving space for random fluctuations of trait variation, and especially trait co-variation. The model is an interesting solution that might explain how stasis can be maintained over contemporary times while allowing for random differentiation of trait genetic co-variation. Whether such differentiation can then lead to future evolutionary divergence once replicated populations adapt to a new environment is an interesting idea to follow.


Arnold, S. J., Bürger, R., Hohenlohe, P. A., Ajie, B. C. and Jones, A. G. 2008. Understanding the evolution and stability of the G-matrix. Evolution 62(10): 2451-2461.
Estes, S. and Arnold, S. J. 2007. Resolving the Paradox of Stasis: Models with Stabilizing Selection Explain Evolutionary Divergence on All Timescales.. Am. Nat. 169(2): 227-244.
Kruuk, L. E. B., Slate, J., Pemberton, J. M., Brotherstone, S., Guinness, F. and Clutton-Brock, T. 2002. Antler size in red deer: Heritability and selection but no evolution. Evolution 56(8): 1683-1695.
Mallard, F., Noble, L., Guzella, T., Afonso, B., Baer, C. F., Teotónio, H. 2023. Phenotypic stasis with genetic divergence. bioRxiv, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.
Morrissey, M. B., Kruuk, L. E. B. and Wilson, A. J. 2010. The danger of applying the breeder's equation in observational studies of natural populations. J Evolution Biol 23(11): 2277-2288.
Schluter, D. 1996. Adaptive radiation along genetic lines of least resistance. Evolution 50(5): 1766-1774.

Phenotypic stasis with genetic divergenceFrançois Mallard, Luke Noble, Thiago Guzella, Bruno Afonso, Charles F. Baer, Henrique Teotónio<p style="text-align: justify;">Whether or not genetic divergence in the short-term of tens to hundreds of generations is compatible with phenotypic stasis remains a relatively unexplored problem. We evolved predominantly outcrossing, genetically ...Adaptation, Behavior & Social Evolution, Experimental Evolution, Quantitative GeneticsFrédéric Guillaume2022-09-01 14:32:53 View
13 Nov 2023
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Color polymorphism and conspicuousness do not increase speciation rates in Lacertids

Colour polymorphism does not increase diversification rates in lizards

Recommended by based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

The striking differences in species richness among lineages in the Tree of Life have long attracted much research interest. In particular, researchers have asked whether certain traits are associated with greater diversification, with a particular focus on traits under sexual selection given their direct link to mating isolation.

Polymorphism, defined as the presence of co-occurring, heritable morphs within a population, has been proposed to influence diversification rates although the effect has been proposed as both promoting or alternatively impeding speciation. The effect of polymorphism may be positive, that is facilitating speciation if polymorphism allows to broaden the ecological niche, thus enabling range expansion, or enabling maintenance of populations in variable environments. Specialized ectomorphs have been observed in several species (e.g. Kusche et al. 2015, Lattanzio and Miles 2016, Whitney et al. 2018, Scali et al. 2016). Polymorphism may also facilitate speciation if a morph is lost during the colonization of a novel area or niche, resulting in rapid divergence of the remaining morphs and reproductive isolation from the ancestral population, known as the morph speciation hypothesis (West-Eberhard 1986, Corl et al. 2010). On the other hand, polymorphism may hamper speciation through disassortative maintaining by morph, which may maintain the polymorphism through the speciation process (Jamie and Meier 2020). An example of such a process is Heliconius numata where disassortative mate preferences based on color hampers ecological speciation (Chouteau et al. 2017). Previous evidence in birds and lizards suggests polymorphism favors diversification (Corl et al. 2010b, 2012, Hugall and Stuart-Fox 2012, Brock et al. 2021).

Here, de Solan et al. (2023) test the effect of polymorphism on diversification in Lacertidae, a family of lizards containing more than 300 species distributed across Europe, Africa and Asia. The group offers a good model system to test the effect of polymorphism on speciation as it contains several species with colour polymorphism, sometimes present in both sexes but restricted to males when present in the flank. Using coloration data from the literature as well as photographs of live specimens for 295 species the authors tested whether the presence of polymorphism is associated with higher diversification rates.

While undertaking their project, another group independently tackled the same question (Brock et al. 2021), using the same model system but coming to very different conclusions. Therefore, de Solan et al. (2023) decided to also contrast their results with those of Brock et al. (2021) to determine the factors responsible for the contrasting results of both studies. The latter I consider one of the strengths of the work, given the careful re-analyses to determine the causes of the discrepancies between both studies. De Solan et al. (2023) found no association between the presence of polymorphism and diversification rates, even though they used different analytical approaches. Thus, this study is interesting as it provides results that do not support a positive effect of polymorphism on species richness. The use of a phylogeny with more limited species sampling (García-Porta et al. 2019) implied that the authors had to manually add 75 species, of which 17 were added to the tree based on information from previously published trees and 68 were added at random locations within the genus. To control for potential biases the authors repeated the analyses using a sample of trees with the imputed taxa, results were broadly concordant across the set of trees. The careful re-analysis contrasting Brock et al. (2021) and de Solan et al. (2023) results suggests the difference is mainly due to a difference in how species were coded as presenting polymorphism, which differed between the two studies, as well as a difference in the package version used to run the state-dependent diversification models. Interestingly non-parametric analyses yielded similar results across both datasets. 
Brock, K.M., McTavish, E.J., Edwards, D.L. 2021. Colour polymorphism is a driver of diversification in the lizard family Lacertidae. Systematic Biology. 71: 24-39.
Chouteau, M., Llaurens, V., Piron-Prunier, F., Joron, M. 2017. Polymorphism at a mimicry supergene maintained by opposing frequency-dependent selection pressures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114: 8325-8329.
Corl, A., Davis, A.R., Kuchta, S.R., Comendant, T., Sinervo, B. 2010a. Alternative mating strategies and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in the side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana: a population-level comparative analysis. Evolution. 64: 79-96. 
Corl, A., Davis, A.R., Kuchta, S.R., Sinervo, B. 2010b. Selective loss of polymorphic mating types is associated with rapid phenotypic evolution during morphic speciation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107: 4254-4259.
Corl, A., Lancaster, L.T., Sinervo, B. 2012. Rapid formation of reproductive isolation between two populations of side-blotched lizards, Uta stansburiana. Copeia. 2012: 593-602.

Garcia-Porta, J., Irisarri, I., Kirchner, M. et al. 2019. Environmental temperatures shape thermal physiology as well as diversification and genome-wide substitution rates in lizards. Nature Communications. 10: 4077.
Hugall, A.F., Stuart-Fox, D. 2012. Accelerated speciation in colour-polymorphic birds. Nature. 485: 631-634.
Jamie, G.A. and Meier, J.I. 2020. The persistence of polymorphisms across species radiations. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 35: 795-808.
Kusche, H., Elmer, K.R., Meyer, A. 2015. Sympatric ecological divergence associated with a colour polymorphism. BMC Biology, 13: 82.
Lattanzio, M.S. and Miles, D.B. 2016. Trophic niche divergence among colour morphs that exhibit alternative mating tactics. Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150531.
Scali, S., Sacchi, R., Mangiacotti, M., Pupin, F., Gentilli, A., Zucchi, C. Scannolo, M., Pavesi, M., Zuffi, M.A.L. 2016. Does a polymorphic species have a ‘polymorphic’ diet? A case study from a lacertid lizard. Biologcial Journal of the Linnean Society. 117: 492-502.

de Solan T, Sinervo B, Geniez P, David P, Crochet P-A (2023) Colour polymorphism and conspicuousness do not increase speciation rates in Lacertids. bioRxiv, 2023.02.15.528678, ver. 2 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.

West-Eberhard, M.J. 1986. Alternative adaptations, speciation, and phylogeny (A review). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 83: 1388-1392.
Whitney, J.L., Donahue, M.J., Karl, S.A. 2018. Niche divergence along a fine-scale ecological gradient in sympatric colour morphs of a coral reef fish. Ecosphere. 9: e02015.

Color polymorphism and conspicuousness do not increase speciation rates in LacertidsThomas de Solan, Barry Sinervo, Philippe Geniez, Patrice David, Pierre-André Crochet<p style="text-align: justify;">Conspicuous body colors and color polymorphism have been hypothesized to increase rates of speciation. Conspicuous colors are evolutionary labile, and often involved in intraspecific sexual signaling and thus may pr...Evolutionary Ecology, Macroevolution, SpeciationAlejandro Gonzalez Voyer2023-02-22 10:05:03 View
30 Oct 2023
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Telomere length vary with sex, hatching rank and year of birth in little owls, Athene noctua

Deciphering the relative contribution of environmental and biological factors driving telomere length in nestlings

Recommended by based on reviews by Florentin Remot and 1 anonymous reviewer

The search for physiological markers of health and survival in wild animal populations is attracting a great deal of interest. At present, there is no (and may never be) consensus on such a single, robust marker but of all the proposed physiological markers, telomere length is undoubtedly the most widely studied in the field of evolutionary ecology (Monaghan et al., 2022). 

Broadly speaking, telomeres are non-coding DNA sequences located at the end of chromosomes in eukaryotes, protecting genomic DNA against oxidative stress and various detrimental processes (e.g. DNA end-joining) and thus maintaining genome stability (Blackburn et al., 2015). However, in most somatic cells from the vast majority of the species, telomere sequences are not replicated and telomere length progressively declines with increased age (Remot et al., 2022). This shortening of telomere length upon a critical level is causally linked to cellular senescence and has been invoked as one of the primary causes of the aging process (López-Otín et al., 2023). Studies performed in both captive and wild populations of animals have further demonstrated that short telomeres (or telomere sequences with a fast attrition rate) are to some extent associated with an increased risk of mortality, even if the magnitude of this association largely differs between species and populations (Wilbourn et al., 2018).

The repeated observations of associations between telomere length and mortality risk have called for studies seeking to identify the ecological and biological factors that – beyond chronological age – shape the between-individual variability in telomere length. A wide spectrum of environmental stressors such as the level of exposure to pathogens or the degree of human disturbances has been proposed as possible modulators of telomere dynamics (see Chatelain et al., 2019). However, within species, the relative contribution of various ecological and biological factors on telomere length has been rarely quantified. In that context, the study of Criscuolo and colleagues (2023) constitutes a timely attempt to decipher the relative contribution of environmental and biological factors driving telomere length in nestlings (i.e. when individuals are between 15 and 35 days of age) from a wild population of little owls, Athene noctua.

In addition to chronological age, Criscuolo and colleagues (2023) analysed the effects of two environmental variables (i.e. cohort and habitat quality) as well as three life history traits (i.e. hatching rank, sex and body condition). Among these traits, sex was found to impact nestling’s telomere length with females carrying longer telomeres than males. Traditionally, the among-individuals variability in telomere length during the juvenile period is interpreted as a direct consequence of differences in growth allocation. Fast-growing individuals are typically supposed to undergo more cell divisions and a higher exposure to oxidative stress, which ultimately shortens telomeres (Monaghan & Ozanne, 2018). Whether - despite a slightly female-biased sexual size dimorphism - male little owls display a condensed period of fast growth that could explain their shorter telomere is yet to be determined. Future studies should also explore the consequences of these sex differences in telomere length in terms of mortality risk. In birds, it has been observed that telomere length during early life can predict lifespan (see Heidinger et al., 2012 in zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata), suggesting that females little owls might live longer than their conspecific males. Yet, adult mortality is generally female-biased in birds (Liker & Székely, 2005) and whether little owls constitute an exception to this rule - possibly mediated by sex-specific telomere dynamics - remains to be explored.   

Quite surprisingly, the present study in little owls did not evidence any clear effect of environmental conditions on nestling’s telomere length, at both temporal and special scales. While a trend for a temporal effect was detected with telomere length being slightly shorter for nestling born the last year of the study (out of 4 years analysed), habitat quality (measured by the proportion of meadow and orchards in the nest environment) had absolutely no impact on nestling telomere length. Recently published studies in wild populations of vertebrates have highlighted the detrimental effects of harsh environmental conditions on telomere length (e.g. Dupoué et al., 2022 in common lizards, Zootoca vivipara), arguing for a key role of telomere dynamics in the emerging field of conservation physiology. While we can recognize the relevance of such an integrative approach, especially in the current context of climate change, the study by Criscuolo and colleagues (2023) reminds us that the relationships between environmental conditions and telomere dynamics are far from straightforward. Depending on the species and its life history, telomere length in early life could indeed capture very different environmental signals.


Blackburn, E. H., Epel, E. S., & Lin, J. (2015). Human telomere biology: A contributory and interactive factor in aging, disease risks, and protection. Science, 350(6265), 1193-1198.
Chatelain, M., Drobniak, S. M., & Szulkin, M. (2019). The association between stressors and telomeres in non-human vertebrates: A meta-analysis. Ecology Letters, 23, 381-398.
Criscuolo, F., Fache, I., Scaar, B., Zahn, S. & Bleu, J. (2023). Telomere length vary with sex, hatching rank and year of birth in little owls, Athene noctua. EcoEvoRxiv, ver.4, peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evol Biol.
Dupoué, A., Blaimont, P., Angelier, F., Ribout, C., Rozen-Rechels, D., Richard, M., & Le Galliard, J. F. (2022). Lizards from warm and declining populations are born with extremely short telomeres. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(33), 2201371119.
Heidinger, B. J., Blount, J. D., Boner, W., Griffiths, K., Metcalfe, N. B., & Monaghan, P. (2012). Telomere length in early life predicts lifespan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(5), 1743-1748.
Liker, A., & Székely, T. (2005). Mortality costs of sexual selection and parental care in natural populations of birds. Evolution, 59(4), 890-897.
López-Otín, C., Blasco, M. A., Partridge, L., Serrano, M., & Kroemer, G. (2023). Hallmarks of aging: An expanding universe. Cell, 186(2), 243-278.
Monaghan, P., Olsson, M., Richardson, D. S., Verhulst, S., & Rogers, S. M. (2022). Integrating telomere biology into the ecology and evolution of natural populations: Progress and prospects. Molecular Ecology, 31(23), 5909-5916.
Monaghan, P., & Ozanne, S. E. (2018). Somatic growth and telomere dynamics in vertebrates: Relationships, mechanisms and consequences. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 373(1741), 20160446.
Remot, F., Ronget, V., Froy, H., Rey, B., Gaillard, J., Nussey, D. H., & Lemaitre, J. (2022). Decline in telomere length with increasing age across nonhuman vertebrates: A meta‐analysis. Molecular Ecology, 31(23), 5917-5932.
Wilbourn, R. V., Moatt, J. P., Froy, H., Walling, C. A., Nussey, D. H., & Boonekamp, J. J. (2018). The relationship between telomere length and mortality risk in non-model vertebrate systems: A meta-analysis. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 373(1741), 20160447.

Telomere length vary with sex, hatching rank and year of birth in little owls, *Athene noctua*François Criscuolo, Inès Fache, Bertrand Scaar, Sandrine Zahn, Josefa Bleu<p>Telomeres are non-coding DNA sequences located at the end of linear chromosomes, protecting genome integrity. In numerous taxa, telomeres shorten with age and telomere length (TL) is positively correlated with longevity. Moreover, TL is also af...Evolutionary Ecology, Life HistoryJean-François Lemaitre2023-03-07 09:44:32 View
03 Oct 2023
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The evolutionary dynamics of plastic foraging and its ecological consequences: a resource-consumer model

Evolution and consequences of plastic foraging behavior in consumer-resource ecosystems

Recommended by based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

Plastic responses of organisms to their environment may be maladaptive in particular when organisms are exposed to new environments. Phenotypic plasticity may also have opposite effects on the adaptive response of organisms to environmental changes: whether phenotypic plasticity favors or hinders such adaptation depends on a balance between the ability of the population to respond to the change non-genetically in the short term, and the weakened genetic response to environmental change. These topics have received continued attention, particularly in the context of climate change (e.g., Chevin et al. 2013, Duputié et al., 2015, Vinton et al . 2022).

In their work, Ledru et al. focus on the adaptive nature of plastic behavior and on its consequences in a consumer-resource ecosystem. As they emphasize, previous works have found that plastic foraging promotes community stability, but these did not consider plasticity as an evolving trait, so Ledru et al. set out to test whether this conclusion holds when both plastic foraging and niche traits of consumers and resources evolve (though ultimately, their new conclusions may not all depend on plasticity evolving). Along the way, they first seek to clarify when such plasticity will evolve, and how it affects the evolution of the niche diversity of consumers and resources, before turning to the question of consumer persistence. 

The model is rather complex, as three traits are allowed to evolve, and the resource uptake expressed through plastic behavior has its own dynamics affected by some form of social learning. Classically, in models of niche evolution, a consumer's efficiency in exploiting a resource characterized by a trait y (here, the resource's individual niche trait), has been described in terms of location-scale (typically Gaussian) kernels, with mean x (the consumer's individual niche trait) specifying the most efficiently exploited resource, and with variance characterizing individual niche breadth. The evolution of the variance has been considered in some previous models but is assumed to be fixed here.  Rather, the new model considers the evolution of the distribution of resource traits, of the consumer's individual niche trait (which is not plastic), and of a "plastic foraging trait" that controls the relative time spent foraging plastically versus foraging randomly. When foraging plastically, the consumers modify their foraging effort towards the type of resource that maximizes their energy intake. in some previous models, the effect of variation in the extent of plastic foraging was already considered, but the evolution of allocation to a plastic foraging strategy versus random foraging was not considered. The model is formulated through reaction-diffusion equations, and its dynamics is investigated by numerical integration.

Foraging plasticity readily evolves, when resources vary widely enough, competition for resources is strong, and the cost of plasticity is weak. This means in particular that a large individual niche width of consumers selects for increased plastic foraging, as the evolution of plastic foraging leads to reduced niche overlap between consumers. The evolution of plastic foraging itself generally, though not always, favors the diversification of the niche traits of consumers and of resources. There is thus a positive feedback loop between plastic foraging and resource diversity. Ledru et al. conclude that the total niche width of the consumer population should also correlate with the evolution of plastic foraging, an implication which they relate to the so-called niche variation hypothesis and to empirical tests of it. 

The joint evolution of the consumer's individual niche trait and plastic foraging trait generates a striking pattern within populations: consumers whose individual niche trait is at an edge of the resource distribution forage more plastically. The authors observe that this relatively simple prediction has not been subjected to any empirical test. 

Returning to the question of consumer persistence, Ledru et al. evaluate this persistence when consumer mortality increases, and in response to either gradual or sudden environmental changes. These different perturbations all reduce the benefits of plastic foraging. The effect of plastic foraging on stability are complex, being negative or positive effect depending on the type of disturbance, and in particular the ecosystem has a lower sustainable rate of environmental change in the presence of plastic foraging. However, allowing the evolutionary regression of plastic foraging then has a comparatively positive effect on persistence.

Despite the substantial effort devoted to analyzing this complex model, relaxing some of its assumptions would likely reveal further complexities. Notably, the overall effect of plasticity on consumer persistence depends on effects already encountered in models of the adaptive response of single species to environmental change: a fast non-genetic response in the short term versus a weakened genetic response in the longer term. The overall balance between these opposite effects on adaptation may be difficult to predict robustly. In the case of a constant rate of environmental change, the results of the present model depend on a lag load between the trait changes of consumer and resource populations, and the extent of the lag may also depend on many factors, such as the extent of genetic variation (e.g., Bürger & Lynch, 1995) for niche traits in consumers and resources. Here, the same variance of mutational effects was assumed for all three evolving traits. Further, spatial environmental variation, a central issue in studies of adaptive responses to environmental changes (e.g., Parmesan, 2006, Zhu et al., 2012), was not considered. Finally, the rate of adjustment of effort by consumers with given niche trait and plastic foraging trait values was assumed proportional to the density of consumers with such trait values. This was justified as a way of accounting for the use of social cues during foraging, but to the extent that they occur, social effects could manifest themselves through other learning dynamics. 

In conclusion, Ledru et al. have addressed a broad range of questions, suggesting new empirical tests of behavioural patterns on one side, and recovering in the context of community response to environmental changes a complexity that could be expected from earlier works on adaptive responses of organisms but that has been overlooked by previous works on community effects of phenotypic plasticity.


Bürger, R. and Lynch, M. (1995), Evolution and extinction in a changing environment: a quantitative-genetic analysis. Evolution, 49: 151-163.

Chevin, L.-M., Collins, S. and Lefèvre, F. (2013), Phenotypic plasticity and evolutionary demographic responses to climate change: taking theory out to the field. Funct Ecol, 27: 967-979.

Duputié, A., Rutschmann, A., Ronce, O. and Chuine, I. (2015), Phenological plasticity will not help all species adapt to climate change. Glob Change Biol, 21: 3062-3073.

Ledru, L., Garnier, J., Guillot, O., Faou, E., & Ibanez, S. (2023). The evolutionary dynamics of plastic foraging and its ecological consequences: a resource-consumer model. EcoEvoRxiv, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community In Evolutionary Biology.

Parmesan, C. (2006) Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change
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Vinton, A.C., Gascoigne, S.J.L., Sepil, I., Salguero-Gómez, R., (2022) Plasticity’s role in adaptive evolution depends on environmental change components. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 37: 1067-1078.

Zhu, K., Woodall, C.W. and Clark, J.S. (2012), Failure to migrate: lack of tree range expansion in response to climate change. Glob Change Biol, 18: 1042-1052.

The evolutionary dynamics of plastic foraging and its ecological consequences: a resource-consumer modelLéo Ledru, Jimmy Garnier, Océane Guillot, Erwan Faou, Camille Noûs, Sébastien Ibanez<p style="text-align: justify;">Phenotypic plasticity has important ecological and evolutionary consequences. In particular, behavioural phenotypic plasticity such as plastic foraging (PF) by consumers, may enhance community stability. Yet little ...Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, Evolutionary Dynamics, Evolutionary Ecology, Phenotypic PlasticityFrançois Rousset2023-03-25 12:04:08 View
25 Sep 2023
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Random genetic drift sets an upper limit on mRNA splicing accuracy in metazoans

The drift barrier hypothesis and the limits to alternative splicing accuracy

Recommended by based on reviews by Lars M. Jakt and 2 anonymous reviewers

Accurate information flow is central to living systems. The continuity of genomes through generations as well as the reproducible functioning and survival of the individual organisms require a faithful information transfer during replication, transcription and translation. The differential efficiency of natural selection against “mistakes” results in decreasing fidelity rates for replication, transcription and translation. At each level in the information flow chain (replication, transcription, translation), numerous complex molecular systems have evolved and been selected for preventing, identifying and, when possible, correcting or removing such “mistakes” arising during information transfer.

However, fidelity cannot be improved ad infinitum. First, because of the limits imposed by the physical nature of the processes of copying and recoding information over different molecular supports: all mechanisms ensuring fidelity during biological information transfer ultimately rely on chemical kinetics and thermodynamics. The more accurate a copying process is, the lower the synthesis rate and the higher the energetic cost of correcting errors. Second, because of the limits imposed by random genetic drift: natural selection cannot effectively act on an allele that contributes with a small differential advantage unless effective population size is large. If s <1/Ne (or s <1/(2Ne) in diploids) the allele frequency in the population is de facto subject to neutral drift processes.

In their preprint “Random genetic drift sets an upper limit on mRNA splicing accuracy in metazoans”, Bénitière, Necsulea and Duret explore the validity of this last mentioned “drift barrier” hypothesis for the case study of alternative splicing diversity in eukaryotes (Bénitière et al. 2022). Splicing refers to an ensemble of eukaryotic molecular processes mediated by a large number of proteins and ribonucleoproteins and involving nucleotide sequence recognition, that uses as a molecular substrate a precursor messenger RNA (mRNA), directly transcribed from the DNA, and produces a mature mRNA by removing introns and joining exons (Chow et al. 1977). Alternative splicing refers to the case in which different molecular species of mature mRNAs can be produced, either by cis-splicing processes acting on the same precursor mRNA, e.g. by varying the presence/absence of different exons or by varying the exon-exon boundaries, or by trans-splicing processes, joining exons from different precursor mRNA molecules.

The diversity of mRNA molecular species generated by alternative splicing enlarges the molecular phenotypic space that can be generated from the same genotype. In humans, alternative splicing occurs in around 95% of the ca. 20,000 genes, resulting in ca. 100,000 medium-to-high abundance transcripts (Pan et al. 2008). In multicellular organisms, the frequency of alternatively spliced mRNAs varies between tissues and across ontogeny, often in a switch-like pattern (Wang et al. 2008). In the molecular and cell biology community, it is commonly accepted that splice variants contribute with specific functions (Marasco and Kornblihtt 2023) although there exists a discussion around the functional nature of low-frequency splice variants (see for instance the debate between Tress et al. 2017 and Blencowe 2017). The origin, diversity, regulation and evolutionary advantage of alternative splicing constitutes thus a playground of the selectionist-neutralist debate, with one extreme considering that most splice variants are mere “mistakes” of the splicing process (Pickrell et al. 2010), and the other extreme considering that alternative splicing is at the core of complexity in multicellular organisms, as it increases the genome coding potential and allows for a large repertoire of cell types (Chen et al. 2014).

In their manuscript, Bénitière, Necsulea and Duret set the cursor towards the neutralist end of the gradient and test the hypothesis of whether the high alternative splice rate in “complex” organisms corresponds to a high rate of splicing “mistakes”, arising from the limit imposed by the drift barrier effect on the power of natural selection to increase accuracy (Bush et al. 2017). In their preprint, the authors convincingly show that in metazoans a fraction of the variation of alternative splicing rate is explained by variation in proxies of population size, so that species with smaller Ne display higher alternative splice rates. They communicate further that abundant splice variants tend to preserve the reading frame more often than low-frequency splice variants, and that the nucleotide splice signals in abundant splice variants display stronger evidence of purifying selection than those in low-frequency splice variants. From all the evidence presented in the manuscript, the authors interpret that “variation in alternative splicing rate is entirely driven by variation in the efficacy of selection against splicing errors”.

The authors honestly present some of the limitations of the data used for the analyses, regarding i) the quality of the proxies used for Ne (i.e. body length, longevity and dN/dS ratio); ii) the heterogeneous nature of the RNA sequencing datasets (full organisms, organs or tissues; different life stages, sexes or conditions); and iii) mostly short RNA reads that do not fully span individual introns. Further, data from bacteria do not verify the herein communicated trends, as it has been shown that bacterial species with low population sizes do not display higher transcription error rates (Traverse and Ochman 2016). Finally, it will be extremely interesting to introduce a larger evolutionary perspective on alternative splicing rates encompassing unicellular eukaryotes, in which an intriguing interplay between alternative splicing and gene duplication has been communicated (Hurtig et al. 2020).

The manuscript from Bénitière, Necsulea and Duret makes a significant advance to our understanding of the diversity, the origin and the physiology of post-transcriptional and post-translational mechanisms by emphasising the fundamental role of non-adaptive evolutionary processes and the upper limits to splicing accuracy set by genetic drift.


Bénitière F, Necsulea A, Duret L. 2023. Random genetic drift sets an upper limit on mRNA splicing accuracy in metazoans. bioRxiv, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology. 

Blencowe BJ. 2017. The Relationship between Alternative Splicing and Proteomic Complexity. Trends Biochem Sci 42:407–408.

Bush SJ, Chen L, Tovar-Corona JM, Urrutia AO. 2017. Alternative splicing and the evolution of phenotypic novelty. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 372:20150474.

Chen L, Bush SJ, Tovar-Corona JM, Castillo-Morales A, Urrutia AO. 2014. Correcting for differential transcript coverage reveals a strong relationship between alternative splicing and organism complexity. Mol Biol Evol 31:1402–1413.

Chow LT, Gelinas RE, Broker TR, Roberts RJ. 1977. An amazing sequence arrangement at the 5’ ends of adenovirus 2 messenger RNA. Cell 12:1–8.

Hurtig JE, Kim M, Orlando-Coronel LJ, Ewan J, Foreman M, Notice L-A, Steiger MA, van Hoof A. 2020. Origin, conservation, and loss of alternative splicing events that diversify the proteome in Saccharomycotina budding yeasts. RNA 26:1464–1480.

Marasco LE, Kornblihtt AR. 2023. The physiology of alternative splicing. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 24:242–254.

Pan Q, Shai O, Lee LJ, Frey BJ, Blencowe BJ. 2008. Deep surveying of alternative splicing complexity in the human transcriptome by high-throughput sequencing. Nat Genet 40:1413–1415.

Pickrell JK, Pai AA, Gilad Y, Pritchard JK. 2010. Noisy splicing drives mRNA isoform diversity in human cells. PLoS Genet 6:e1001236.

Traverse CC, Ochman H. 2016. Conserved rates and patterns of transcription errors across bacterial growth states and lifestyles. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:3311–3316.

Tress ML, Abascal F, Valencia A. 2017. Alternative Splicing May Not Be the Key to Proteome Complexity. Trends Biochem Sci 42:98–110.

Wang ET, Sandberg R, Luo S, Khrebtukova I, Zhang L, Mayr C, Kingsmore SF, Schroth GP, Burge CB. 2008. Alternative isoform regulation in human tissue transcriptomes. Nature 456:470–476.

Random genetic drift sets an upper limit on mRNA splicing accuracy in metazoansFlorian Benitiere, Anamaria Necsulea, Laurent Duret<p style="text-align: justify;">Most eukaryotic genes undergo alternative splicing (AS), but the overall functional significance of this process remains a controversial issue. It has been noticed that the complexity of organisms (assayed by the nu...Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, Genome Evolution, Molecular Evolution, Population Genetics / GenomicsIgnacio BravoAnonymous2022-12-12 14:00:01 View
07 Aug 2023
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Pollen-feeding delays reproductive senescence and maintains toxicity of Heliconius erato

Impact of pollen-feeding on egg-laying and cyanogenic glucoside abundance in red postman butterflies

Recommended by based on reviews by Carol Boggs, Caroline Mueller and 1 anonymous reviewer

Growth, development and reproduction in animals are all limited by dietary nutrients. Expansion of an organism’s diet to sources not accessible to closely related species reduces food competition, and eases the constraints of nutrient-limited diets. Adult butterflies are herbivorous insects known to feed primarily on nectar from flowers, which is rich in sugars but poor in amino acids.  Only certain species in the genus Heliconius are known to also feed on pollen, which is especially rich in amino acids, and is known to prolong their lives by several months. The ability to digest pollen in Heliconius has been linked to specialized feeding behaviors (Krenn et al. 2009) and extra-oral digestion using enzymes, possibly including duplicated copies of cocoonase (Harpel et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2016 and 2018), a protease used by some moths to digest silk upon eclosion from their cocoons. In this reprint, Pinheiro de Castro and colleagues investigated the impact of artificial and natural diets on egg-laying ability, body weight, and cyanogenic glucoside abundance in adult Heliconius erato butterflies of both sexes. 

Previous studies (Dunlap-Pianka et al. 1981) in H. charithonia demonstrated that access to dietary pollen led to extended egg-laying ability among adult female butterflies compared to females deprived of pollen, and compared to Dryas iulia females which feed only on nectar. In the current study, Pinheiro de Castro et al. (2023) examine the impact of diet on both young and old H. erato, over a longer period of time than the earlier work, highlighting the importance of extending the time period over which effects are evaluated. In addition to extending egg-laying ability in older females, the authors found that pollen in the diet appeared to maintain older female body weight, presumably because the pollen contained nutrients depleted during egg-laying.

The authors then investigated the effects of nutrition on the production of cyanogenic glycoside defenses. Heliconius are aposematic butterflies that sequester cyanide-forming defense chemicals from food plants as larvae or synthesize these compounds de novo. The authors found the abundance of cyanogenic glycosides to be significantly greater in butterflies with access to pollen, but again only in older females.

Curiously, field studies of male and female H. charithonia butterflies found that females in the wild collected more pollen than males (Mendoza-Cuenca and Macías-Ordóñez 2005). Taken together, these new findings raise the intriguing possibility that females collect more pollen than males, in part, because pollen has a bigger impact on female survival and reproduction. A small limitation of the study is the use of wing length, rather than body weight, at the zero time point. But the trend is clear in both males and females, and it adds supporting detail to the efficacy of pollen feeding as an unusual strategy for increasing fertility and survival in Heliconius butterflies.


Dunlap-Pianka, Helen, Carol L. Boggs, Lawrence E. Gilbert. (1977) Ovarian dynamics in heliconiine butterflies: Programmed senescence versus eternal youth. Science, 197: 487-490,
Pinheiro de Castro, Erika C., Josie McPherson, Glennis Julian, Anniina L. K. Mattila, Søren Bak, Stephen H. Montgomery, Chris Jiggins. (2023) Pollen-feeding delays reproductive senescence and maintains toxicity of Heliconius erato. bioRxiv, 2023.01.13.523799, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.
Krenn, Harald W., Monika J. B. Eberhard, Stefan H. Eberhard, Anna-Laetitia Hikl, Werner Huber, Lawrence E. Gilbert (2009). Mechanical damage to pollen aids nutrient acquisition in Heliconius butterflies (Nymphalidae).  Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 3: 203–208.
Harpel, Desiree, Darron A. Cullen, Swidbert R. Ott, Chris D. Jiggins, James R. Walters (2015) Pollen feeding proteomics: Salivary proteins of the passion flower butterfly, Heliconius melpomene. Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 63: 7-13,
Mendoza-Cuenca, Luis, Rogelio Macías-Ordóñez (2005) Foraging polymorphism in Heliconius charitonia (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae): morphological constraints and behavioral compensation. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 21: 407-415.
Smith, Gilbert, Aide Macias-Muñoz, John Kelly, Carter Butts, Rachel Martin, Adriana D. Briscoe (2018) Evolutionary and structural analyses uncover a role for solvent interactions in the diversification of cocoonases in butterflies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 285: 20172037. 
Smith, Gilbert, Aide Macias-Muñoz, Adriana D. Briscoe (2016) Gene duplication and gene expression changes play a role in the evolution of candidate pollen-feeding genes in Heliconius butterflies. Genome Biology and Evolution, 8: 2581-2596.

Pollen-feeding delays reproductive senescence and maintains toxicity of Heliconius eratoErika C. Pinheiro de Castro, Josie McPherson, Glennis Jullian, Anniina L. K. Mattila, Søren Bak, Stephen Montgomery, Chris Jiggins<p>Dietary shifts may act to ease energetic constraints and allow organisms to optimise life-history traits. Heliconius butterflies differ from other nectar-feeders due to their unique ability to digest pollen, which provides a reliable source of ...Evolutionary Ecology, Life HistoryAdriana Briscoe2023-02-07 12:59:54 View
04 Aug 2023
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Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences

Sensitive windows for phenotypic plasticity within and across generations; where empirical results do not meet the theory but open a world of possibilities

Recommended by based on reviews by David Murray-Stoker, Timothée Bonnet and Willem Frankenhuis

It is easy to define phenotypic plasticity as a mechanism by which traits change in response to a modification of the environment. Many complex mechanisms are nevertheless involved with plastic responses, their strength, and stability (e.g., reliability of cues, type of exposure, genetic expression, epigenetics). It is rather intuitive to think that environmental cues perceived at different stages of development will logically drive different phenotypic responses (Fawcett and Frankenhuis 2015). However, it has proven challenging to try and explain, or model how and why different effects are caused by similar cues experienced at different developmental or life stages (Walasek et al. 2022). The impact of these ‘sensitive windows’ on the stability of plastic responses within or across generations remains unclear. In their paper entitled “Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences”, Tariel-Adam (2023) address this question.

In this paper, Tariel et al. acknowledge the current state of the art, i.e., that some traits influenced by the environment at early life stages become fixed later in life (Snell-Rood et al. 2015) and that sensitive windows are therefore more likely to be observed during early stages of development. Constructive exchanges with the reviewers illustrated that Tariel et al. presented a clear picture of the knowledge on sensitive windows from a conceptual and a mechanistic perspective, thereby providing their study with a strong and elegant rationale. Tariel et al. outlined that little is known about the significance of this scenario when it comes to transgenerational plasticity. Theory predicts that exposure late in the life of parents should be more likely to drive transgenerational plasticity because the cue perceived by parents is more likely to be reliable if time between parental exposure and offspring expression is short (McNamara et al. 2016). I would argue that although sensible, this scenario is likely oversimplifying the complexity of evolutionary, ecological, and inheritance mechanisms at play (Danchin et al. 2018). Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) point out in their paper how the absence of experimental results limits our understanding of the evolutionary and adaptive significance of transgenerational plasticity and decided to address this broad question.

Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) used the context of predator-prey interactions, which is a powerful framework to evaluate the temporality of predator cues and prey responses within and across generations (Sentis et al. 2018). They conducted a very elegant experiment whereby two generations of freshwater snails Physa acuta were exposed to crayfish predator cues at different developmental windows. They triggered the within-generation phenotypic plastic response of inducible defences (e.g., shell thickness) and identified sensitive windows as to evaluate their role in within-generation phenotypic plasticity versus transgenerational plasticity. They used different linear models, which lead to constructive exchanges with reviewers, and between reviewers, well trained on these approaches, in particular on effect sizes, that improved the paper by pushing the discussion all the way towards a consensus. 

Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) results showed that the phenotypic plastic response of different traits was associated with different sensitive windows. Although early-life development was confirmed to be a sensitive window, it was far from being the only developmental stage driving within-generation plastic responses of defence traits. This finding contributes to change our views on plasticity because where theoretical models predict early- and late-life sensitive windows, empirical results gathered here present a more continuous opportunity for sensitive windows over the lifetime of freshwater snails. This is likely because multifactorial mechanisms drive the reliability and adaptive significance of predator cues. To me, this paper most original contribution lies probably in the empirical investigation of sensitive windows underlying transgenerational plasticity. Their finding implies mechanistic ties between sensitive windows driving within-generation and transgenerational plasticity for some traits, but they also shed light on the possible independence of these processes. Although one may be disheartened by these findings illustrating the ability of nature to combine complex mechanisms in order to produce somewhat unpredictable scenarios, one can only find that this unlimited range of phenotypic plasticity scenarios is a wonder to investigate because much remains to be understood. As mentioned in the conclusion of the paper, the opportunity for sensitive windows to drive such a range of plastic responses may also be an opportunity for organisms to adapt to a wide range of environmental demands. 


Danchin E, A Pocheville, O Rey, B Pujol, and S Blanchet (2019). Epigenetically facilitated mutational assimilation: epigenetics as a hub within the inclusive evolutionary synthesis. Biological Reviews, 94: 259-282.

Fawcett TW, and WE Frankenhuis (2015). Adaptive Explanations for Sensitive Windows in Development. Frontiers in Zoology 12, S3. 

McNamara JM, SRX Dall, P Hammerstein, and O Leimar (2016). Detection vs. Selection: Integration of Genetic, Epigenetic and Environmental Cues in Fluctuating Environments. Ecology Letters 19, 1267–1276.

Sentis A, R Bertram, N Dardenne, et al. (2018). Evolution without standing genetic variation: change in transgenerational plastic response under persistent predation pressure. Heredity 121, 266–281. 

Snell-Rood EC, EM Swanson, and RL Young (2015). Life History as a Constraint on Plasticity: Developmental Timing Is Correlated with Phenotypic Variation in Birds. Heredity 115, 379–388.

Tariel-Adam J, E Luquet, and S Plénet (2023). Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences. OSF preprints, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.

Walasek N, WE Frankenhuis, and K Panchanathan (2022). An Evolutionary Model of Sensitive Periods When the Reliability of Cues Varies across Ontogeny. Behavioral Ecology 33, 101–114.

Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defencesJuliette Tariel-Adam; Émilien Luquet; Sandrine Plénet<p>Transgenerational plasticity could be an important mechanism for adaptation to variable environments in addition to within-generational plasticity. But its potential for adaptation may be restricted to specific developmental windows that are hi...Adaptation, Evolutionary Ecology, Phenotypic PlasticityBenoit Pujol2022-11-14 08:08:27 View
30 Jun 2023
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How do monomorphic bacteria evolve? The Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex and the awkward population genetics of extreme clonality

How the tubercle bacillus got its genome: modernising, modelling, and making sense of the stories we tell

Recommended by based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers

In this instructive review, Stritt and Gagneux offer a balanced perspective on the evolutionary forces shaping Mycobacterium tuberculosis and make the case that our instinct for storytelling be balanced with quantitative models. M. tuberculosis is perhaps the best-known clonal bacterial pathogen – evolving largely in the absence of horizontal gene transfer. Its genome is full of puzzling patterns, including much higher GC content than most intracellular pathogens (which suggests efficient selection to resist AT-skewed mutational bias) but a very high ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitution rates (dN/dS ~ 0.5, typically interpreted as weak selection against deleterious amino acid changes). 

The authors offer alternative explanations for these patterns, framing the question: is M. tuberculosis evolution shaped mainly by drift or by efficient selection? They propose that this question can only be answered by accounting for the pathogen’s extreme clonality. A clonal lifestyle can have its advantages, for example when adaptations must arise in a particular order (Kondrashov and Kondrashov 2001). An important disadvantage highlighted by the authors are linkage effects: without recombination to shuffle them up, beneficial mutations are linked to deleterious mutations in the same genome (hitchhiking) and purging deleterious mutations also purges neutral diversity across the genome (background selection). The authors propose the latter – efficient purifying selection and strong linkage – as an explanation for the low genetic diversity observed in M. tuberculosis. This is of course not exclusive of other related explanations, such as clonal interference (Gerrish and Lenski 1998). They also champion the use of forward evolutionary simulations (Haller and Messer 2019) to model the interplay between selection, recombination, and demography as a powerful alternative to traditional backward coalescent models.

At times, Stritt and Gagneux are pessimistic about our existing methods – arguing that dN/dS and homoplasies “tell us little about the frequency and strength of selection.” Even though I favour a more optimistic view, I fully agree that our traditional population genetic metrics are sensitive to a slew of different deviations from a standard neutral evolution model and must be interpreted with caution. As I and others have argued, the extent of recombination (measured as the amount of linkage in a genome) is a key factor in determining how best to test for natural selection (Shapiro et al. 2009) and to conduct genotype-phenotype association studies (Chen and Shapiro 2021) in microbes. While this article is focused on the well-studied M. tuberculosis complex, there are many parallels with other clonal bacteria, including pathogens and symbionts. Whatever your favourite bug, we must all be careful to make sure the stories we tell about them are not “just so tales” but are supported, to the extent possible, by data and quantitative models.


Chen, Peter E., and B. Jesse Shapiro. 2021. "Classic Genome-Wide Association Methods Are Unlikely to Identify Causal Variants in Strongly Clonal Microbial Populations." bioRxiv.
Gerrish, P. J., and R. E. Lenski. 1998. "The Fate of Competing Beneficial Mutations in an Asexual Population." Genetica 102-103 (1-6): 127-44.
Haller, Benjamin C., and Philipp W. Messer. 2019. "SLiM 3: Forward Genetic Simulations Beyond the Wright-Fisher Model." Molecular Biology and Evolution 36 (3): 632-37.
Kondrashov, F. A., and A. S. Kondrashov. 2001. "Multidimensional Epistasis and the Disadvantage of Sex." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98 (21): 12089-92.
Shapiro, B. Jesse, Lawrence A. David, Jonathan Friedman, and Eric J. Alm. 2009. "Looking for Darwin's Footprints in the Microbial World." Trends in Microbiology 17 (5): 196-204. 

Stritt, C., Gagneux, S. (2023). How do monomorphic bacteria evolve? The Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex and the awkward population genetics of extreme clonality. EcoEvoRxiv, ver.3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology.

How do monomorphic bacteria evolve? The *Mycobacterium tuberculosis* complex and the awkward population genetics of extreme clonalityChristoph Stritt, Sebastien Gagneux<p style="text-align: justify;">Exchange of genetic material through sexual reproduction or horizontal gene transfer is ubiquitous in nature. Among the few outliers that rarely recombine and mainly evolve by <em>de novo</em> mutation are a group o...Evolutionary Dynamics, Genome Evolution, Molecular Evolution, Population Genetics / Genomics, Reproduction and SexB. Jesse Shapiro Gonçalo Themudo2022-12-16 13:41:53 View