Integrating genetic and environmental forces that shape the evolution of geographic variation in a marine snail

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Abstract

Temporal and spatial patterns of phenotypic variation have traditionally been thought to reflect genetic differentiation produced by natural selection. Recently, however, there has been growing interest in how natural selection may shape the genetics of phenotypic plasticity to produce patterns of geographic variation and phenotypic evolution. Because the covariance between genetic and environmental influences can modulate the expression of phenotypic variation, a complete understanding of geographic variation requires determining whether these influences covary in the same (cogradient variation) or in opposing (countergradient variation) directions. We focus on marine snails from rocky intertidal shores as an ideal system to explore how genetic and plastic influences contribute to geographic and historical patterns of phenotypic variation. Phenotypic plasticity in response to predator cues, wave action, and water temperature appear to exert a strong influence on small and large-scale morphological variation in marine snails. In particular, plasticity in snail shell thickness: (i) may contribute to phenotypic evolution, (ii) appears to have evolved across small and large spatial scales, and (iii) may be driven by life history trade-offs tied to architectural constraints imposed by the shell. The plasticity exhibited by these snails represents an important adaptive strategy to the pronounced heterogeneity of the intertidal zone and undoubtedly has played a key role in their evolution.