Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 285–297 | Cite as

The relative advantages of plasticity and fixity in different environments: when is it good for a plant to adjust?



Plant populations and species differ greatly in phenotypic plasticity. This could be because plasticity is advantageous under some conditions and disadvantageous or not advantageous under others. We distinguish adaptive from injurious and neutral plasticity and discuss when selection should favor adaptive plasticity over genetic differentiation or lack of phenotypic variation. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that selection is likely to favor plasticity when an environmental factor varies on the same spatial scale as the plant response unit, when the plant can respond to an environmental factor faster than the level of the factor changes, and when environmental variation is highly but not completely predictable. Phenotypic plasticity might also tend to be more advantageous when mean resource availability is high rather than low, when a response can occur late in development rather than early, and when a response is reversible rather than irreversible. There is substantial evidence for the hypothesis that predictability favors plasticity. However, available evidence does not support the hypothesis that high mean resource availability necessarily favors plasticity. Testing hypotheses about when it is good for a plant to adjust is central to understanding the diversity of plasticity in plants.

plant phenotypic plasticity resource availability spatial and temporal heterogeneity unpredictability 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ackerly, D. (1997) Allocation, leaf display, and growth in fluctuating light environments. In F.A. Bazzaz and J. Grace (eds) Plant Resource Allocation. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.Google Scholar
  2. Agrawal, A.A. (1998) Induced responses to herbivory and increased plant performance. Science 279, 1201–1202.Google Scholar
  3. Alpert, P. (1991) Nitrogen sharing among ramets increases clonal growth in Fragaria chiloensis. Ecology 72, 69–80.Google Scholar
  4. Alpert, P. (1996) Nitrogen sharing in natural clonal fragments of Fragaria chiloensis. J. Ecol. 84, 395–406.Google Scholar
  5. Alpert, P. and Mooney, H.A. (1996) Resource heterogeneity generated by shrubs and topography on coastal sand dunes. Vegetatio 122, 83–93.Google Scholar
  6. Bradshaw, A.D. (1965) Evolutionary significance of phenotypic plasticity in plants. Adv. Genet. 13, 115–155.Google Scholar
  7. Chapin, F.S. III (1980) The mineral nutrition of wild plants. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 11, 233–260.Google Scholar
  8. Cipollini, D. (1998) Induced defenses and phenotypic plasticity. Trends Ecol. Evol. 13, 200.Google Scholar
  9. Claassen, V.P. and Marler, M. (1998) Annual and perennial grass growth on nitrogen-depleted decomposed granite. Restorat. Ecol. 6, 175–180.Google Scholar
  10. Colasanti, R.L. and Hunt, R. (1997) Resource dynamics and plant growth: a self-assembling model for individuals, populations and communities. Funct. Ecol. 11, 133–145.Google Scholar
  11. Coleman, J.S., McConnaughay, K.D.M. and Ackerly, D.D. (1994) Interpreting phenotypic variation in plants. Trends Ecol. Evol. 9, 187–190.Google Scholar
  12. de Kroon, H. and Hutchings, M.J. (1995) Morphological plasticity in clonal plants: the foraging concept reconsidered. J. Ecol. 83, 143–152.Google Scholar
  13. de Kroon, H., Fransen, B., van Rheenen, J.W.A., van Dijk, A. and Kreulen, R. (1996) High levels of inter-ramet water translocation in two rhizomatous Carex species, as quantified by deuterium labelling. Oecologia 106, 73–84.Google Scholar
  14. DeWitt, T.J., Sih, A. and Wilson, D.S. (1998) Costs and limits of phenotypic plasticity. Trends Ecol. Evol. 13, 77–81.Google Scholar
  15. Dong, M. (1995) Morphological responses to local light conditions in clonal herbs from contrasting habitats, and their modification due to physiological integration. Oecologia 101, 282–288.Google Scholar
  16. Dong, M. and Alaten, B. (1999) Clonal plasticity in response to rhizome severing and heterogeneous resource supply in the rhizomatous grass Psammachloa villosa in an Inner Mongolian dune. China. Plant Ecol. 141, 53–58.Google Scholar
  17. Dong, M., During, H.J. and Werger, M.J.A. (1996) Morphological responses to nutrient availability in four clonal herbs. Vegetatio 123, 183–192.Google Scholar
  18. Dudley, S.A. and Schmitt, J. (1996) Testing the adaptive plasticity hypothesis: density-dependent selection on manipulated stem length in Impatiens capensis. Am. Nat. 147, 445–465.Google Scholar
  19. Fransen, B., de Kroon, H. and Berendse, F. (1998) Root morphological plasticity and nutrient acquisition of perennial grass species from habitats of different nutrient availability. Oecologia 115, 351–358.Google Scholar
  20. Gedroc, J.J., McConnaughay, K.D.M. and Coleman, J.S. (1996) Plasticity in root/shoot partitioning: optimal, ontogenetic, or both? Funct. Ecol. 10, 44–50.Google Scholar
  21. Grime, J.P. (1994) The role of plasticity in exploiting environmental heterogeneity. In M.M. Caldwell and R.W. Pearcy (eds) Exploitation of Environmental Heterogeneity in Plants: Ecophysiological Processes Above-and Below-ground. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.Google Scholar
  22. Huber, H. (1997) Architectural plasticity of stoloniferous and erect herbs in response to light climate. Ph.D. Dissertation, Utrecht University, Utrecht.Google Scholar
  23. Huber, H. and Hutchings, M.J. (1997) Differential response to shading in orthotropic and plagiotropic shoots of the clonal herb Glechoma hirsuta. Oecologia 112, 485–491.Google Scholar
  24. Hutchings, M.J. and de Kroon, H. (1994) Foraging in plants: the role of morphological plasticity in resource acquisition. Adv. Ecol. Res. 25, 159–238.Google Scholar
  25. Karban, R. and Baldwin, I.T. (1997) Induced Response to Herbivory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  26. Kigel, J. and Koller, D. (1985) Asexual reproduction of weeds. In S.O. Duke (ed) Weed Physiology. Vol. 1. Reproduction and Ecophysiology. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.Google Scholar
  27. Kolb, A. (1999) Patterns of biological invasions in a California coastal grassland - the role of environmental stress. M.Sc. Thesis. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  28. Levins, R. (1968) Evolution in Changing Environments. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.Google Scholar
  29. Linhart, Y.B. and Grant, M.C. (1996) Evolutionary significance of local genetic differentiation in plants. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 27, 237–277.Google Scholar
  30. Muller, I., Schmid, B. and Weiner, J. (2000) The effect of nutrient availability on biomass allocation patterns in 27 species of herbaceous plants. Perspect. Plant Ecol. Evol. Syst. 3, 115–127.Google Scholar
  31. Nernberg, D. and Dale, M.R.T. (1997) Competition of five native prairie grasses with Bromus inermis under three moisture regimes. Can. J. Bot. 75, 2140–2145.Google Scholar
  32. Oborny, B. (1994) Growth rules in clonal plants and predictability of the environment: a simulation study. J. Ecol. 82, 341–351.Google Scholar
  33. Padilla, D.K. and Adolph, S.C. (1996) Plastic inducible morphologies are not always adaptive: the importance of time delays in a stochastic environment. Evol. Ecol. 10, 105–117.Google Scholar
  34. Pigliucci, M. (1996) How organisms respond to environmental changes: from phenotypes to molecules (and vice versa). Trends Ecol. Evol. 11, 168-173.Google Scholar
  35. Reynolds, H.L. and D'Antonio, C. (1996) The ecological significance of plasticity in root weight ratio in response to nitrogen: Opinion. Plant Soil 185, 75–97.Google Scholar
  36. Scheiner, S.M. (1993) Genetics and evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 24, 35–68.Google Scholar
  37. Schlichting, C.D. and Pigliucci, M. (1998) Phenotypic Evolution: a Reaction Norm Perspective. Sinauer Press, Sunderland, MA.Google Scholar
  38. Schmid, B. (1992) Phenotypic variation in plants. Evol. Trends Plants 6, 45–60.Google Scholar
  39. Schmid, B. and Bazzaz, F.A. (1990) Plasticity in plant size and architecture in rhizome-derived vs. seed-derived Solidago and Aster. Ecology 71, 523–535.Google Scholar
  40. Schmid, B., Birrer, A. and Lavigne, C. (1996) Genetic variation in the response of plant populations to elevated CO2 in a nutrient-poor, calcareous grassland. In C. Körner and F.A. Bazzaz (eds) Carbon Dioxide, Populations, and Communities. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.Google Scholar
  41. Schmitt, J., McCormac, A.C. and Smyth, H. (1995) A test of the adaptive plasticity hypothesis using transgenic and mutant plants disabled in phytochrome-mediated elongation responses to neighbours. Am. Nat. 146, 937–953.Google Scholar
  42. Schmitt, J. and Wulff, R.D. (1993) Light spectral quality, phytochrome and plant competition. Trends Ecol. Evol. 8, 47–51.Google Scholar
  43. Schweitzer, J.A. and Larson, K.C. (1999) Greater morphological plasticity of exotic honeysuckle species may make them better invaders than native species. J. Torrey Bot. Soc. 126, 15–23.Google Scholar
  44. Strong, D.R., Maron, J.L., Connors, P.G., Whipple, A., Harrison, S. and Jeffries, R.L. (1995) High mortality, fluctuation in numbers, and heavy subterranean insect herbivory in bush lupine, Lupinus arboreus. Oecologia 104, 85–92.Google Scholar
  45. Sultan, S.E. and Bazzaz, F.A. (1993) Phenotypic plasticity in Polygonum persicaria. II. Norms of reaction to soil moisture and the maintenance of genetic diversity. Evolution 47, 1032–1049.Google Scholar
  46. Via, S., Gomulkiewicz, R., De Jong, G., Scheiner, S.M., Schlichting, C.D. and Van Tienderen, P.H. (1995) Adaptive phenotypic plasticity: consensus and controversy. Trends Ecol. Evol. 10, 212–217.Google Scholar
  47. Watson, M.A. (1990) Phenological effects of clone development and demography. In J. van Groenendael and H. de Kroon (eds) Clonal Growth in Plants: Regulation and Function. SPB Academic Publishing, The Hague.Google Scholar
  48. Watson, M.A., Geber, M.A. and Jones, C.S. (1995) Ontogenetic contingency and the expression of plant plasticity. Trends Ecol. Evol. 10, 474–475.Google Scholar
  49. Watson, M.A., Hay, M.J.M. and Newton, P.C.D. (1997) Developmental phenology and the timing of determination of shoot bud fates: ways in which the developmental program modulates fitness in clonal plants. In H. de Kroon and J. van Groenendael (eds) The Ecology and Evolution of Clonal Plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden.Google Scholar
  50. West-Eberhard, M.J. (1989) Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 20, 249–278.Google Scholar
  51. Wijesinghe, D.K. and Hutchings, M.J. (1997) The effects of spatial scale of environmental heterogeneity on the growth of a clonal plant: an experimental study with Glechoma hederacea. J. Ecol. 85, 17–28.Google Scholar
  52. Wijesinghe, D.K. and Hutchings, M.J. (1999) The effects of environmental heterogeneity on the performance of Glechoma hederacea: the interactions between patch contrast and patch scale. J. Ecol. 87, 860–872.Google Scholar
  53. Williams, D.G., Mack, R.N. and Black, R.A. (1995) Ecophysiology of introduced Pennisetum setaceum on Hawaii - the role of phenotypic plasticity. Ecology 76, 1569–1580.Google Scholar
  54. Willis, A.J., Memmott, J. and Forrester, R.I. (2000) Is there evidence for the post-invasion evolution of increased size among invasive plant species? Ecol. Lett. 3, 275–283.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA; tel.:
  2. 2.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations