Drivers of population differentiation in phenotypic plasticity in a temperate conifer: A 27-year study

Raul de la Mata, Rafael Zas, Gloria Bustingorri, Luis Sampedro, Marc Rust, Ana Hernandez-Serrano, Anna Sala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Phenotypic plasticity is a main mechanism for organisms to cope with changing environments and broaden their ecological range. Plasticity is genetically based and can evolve under natural selection, such that populations within a species show distinct phenotypic responses to the environment if evolved under different conditions. Understanding how intraspecific variation in phenotypic plasticity arises is critical to assess potential adaptation to ongoing climate change. Theory predicts that plasticity is favored in more favorable but variable environments. Yet, many theoretical predictions about benefits, costs, and selection on plasticity remain untested. To test these predictions, we took advantage of three genetic trials in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA, which assessed 23 closely located Pinus ponderosa populations over 27 years. Mean environmental conditions and their spatial patterns of variation at the seed source populations were characterized based on six basic climate parameters. Despite the small area of origin, there was significant genetic variation in phenotypic plasticity for tree growth among populations. We found a significant negative correlation between phenotypic plasticity and the patch size of environmental heterogeneity at the seed source populations, but not with total environmental spatial variance. These results show that populations exposed to high microhabitat heterogeneity have evolved higher phenotypic plasticity and that the trigger was the grain rather than the total magnitude of spatial heterogeneity. Contrary to theoretical predictions, we also found a positive relationship between population plasticity and summer drought at the seed source, indicating that drought can act as a trigger of plasticity. Finally, we found a negative correlation between the quantitative genetic variance within populations and their phenotypic plasticity, suggesting compensatory adaptive mechanisms for the lack of genetic diversity. These results improve our understanding of the microevolutionary drivers of phenotypic plasticity, a critical process for resilience of long-lived species under climate change, and support decision-making in tree genetic improvement programs and seed transfer strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1945-1962
Number of pages18
JournalEvolutionary Applications
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2022


  • Pinus ponderosa
  • environmental heterogeneity
  • genotype by environment interaction
  • genotypic stability
  • patch size
  • phenotypic plasticity


Dive into the research topics of 'Drivers of population differentiation in phenotypic plasticity in a temperate conifer: A 27-year study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this