Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 1057–1074

Assortative mating can limit the evolution of phenotypic plasticity

  • Etsuko Nonaka
  • Åke Brännström
  • Richard Svanbäck
Original Paper


Phenotypic plasticity, the ability to adjust phenotype to the exposed environment, is often advantageous for organisms living in heterogeneous environments. Although the degree of plasticity appears limited in nature, many studies have reported low costs of plasticity in various species. Existing studies argue for ecological, genetic, or physiological costs or selection eliminating plasticity with high costs, but have not considered costs arising from sexual selection. Here, we show that sexual selection caused by mate choice can impede the evolution of phenotypic plasticity in a trait used for mate choice. Plasticity can remain low to moderate even in the absence of physiological or genetic costs, when individuals phenotypically adapted to contrasting environments through plasticity can mate with each other and choose mates based on phenotypic similarity. Because the non-choosy sex (i.e., males) with lower degrees of plasticity are more favored in matings by the choosy sex (i.e., females) adapted to different environments, directional selection toward higher degrees of plasticity is constrained by sexual selection. This occurs at intermediate strengths of female choosiness in the range of the parameter value we examined. Our results demonstrate that mate choice is a potential source of an indirect cost to phenotypic plasticity in a sexually selected plastic trait.


Assortative mating Disruptive selection Eco-evolutionary Mate choice Phenotypic plasticity Sexual selection 

Supplementary material

10682_2014_9728_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.5 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 1557 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Etsuko Nonaka
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Åke Brännström
    • 1
    • 4
    • 5
  • Richard Svanbäck
    • 6
  1. 1.Integrated Science LabUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Environmental ScienceUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  4. 4.Department of Mathematics and Mathematical StatisticsUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden
  5. 5.Evolution and Ecology ProgramInternational Institute for Applied Systems AnalysisLaxenburgAustria
  6. 6.Department of Ecology and Genetics/LimnologyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

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