Research Article

Natural selection and the predictability of evolution in Timema stick insects

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Science  16 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6377, pp. 765-770
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap9125

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Estimating the predictability of evolution

Evolution results from expected effects, such as selection driving alleles toward fixation, and stochastic effects, such as unusual environmental variation and genetic drift. To determine the potential to predict evolutionary change, Nosil et al. examined three naturally occurring morphs of stick insects (see the Perspective by Reznick and Travis). They wanted to determine which selective parameters could be used to foresee changes, despite varying environmental conditions. One morph fit a model of negative frequency-dependent selection, likely owing to predation, but changes in other morph frequencies remained unpredictable. Thus, for specific cases, we can forecast short-term changes within populations, but evolution is more difficult to predict when it involves a balance between multiple selective factors and uncertainty in environmental conditions.

Science, this issue p. 765; see also p. 738

Abstract

Predicting evolution remains difficult. We studied the evolution of cryptic body coloration and pattern in a stick insect using 25 years of field data, experiments, and genomics. We found that evolution is more difficult to predict when it involves a balance between multiple selective factors and uncertainty in environmental conditions than when it involves feedback loops that cause consistent back-and-forth fluctuations. Specifically, changes in color-morph frequencies are modestly predictable through time (r2 = 0.14) and driven by complex selective regimes and yearly fluctuations in climate. In contrast, temporal changes in pattern-morph frequencies are highly predictable due to negative frequency-dependent selection (r2 = 0.86). For both traits, however, natural selection drives evolution around a dynamic equilibrium, providing some predictability to the process.

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