, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 423-431

The importance of evolutionary constraints in ecological time scales

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The importance of constraints, defined as factors that retard or prevent a population from reaching its immediate adaptive peak on an ecological time scale is analysed. This is done by means of simple quantitative genetic models, which if anything underestimate the importance of constraints. The results show that even in the simplest case the response to selection will not generally be in the same direction as the selection vector, i.e. the direction to the nearest optimum. Adding complexity identifies cases where selection may lead the population in suboptimal directions. It is concluded that information about univariate genetic variances is not sufficient to predict evolutionary responses and may even be misleading. However, genetic covariances are not always acting as constraints, but can under certain circumstances promote evolution towards the nearest optimum. This can be understood by a spectral decomposition of the genetic variance—covariance matrix, where it is shown that the eigenvector associated with the largest amount of variance will to various degrees determine the outcome of selection. A literature survey of the pattern of character covariation in morphological characters in natural populations shows a wide variety of correlation patterns, but quite often shows a high level of covariance between traits. This suggests that constraints to short-term evolution may be more common than generally appreciated.