The selective advantage of reaction norms for environmental tolerance

Wilfried Gabriel, Michael Lynch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


A tolerance curve defines the dependence of a genotype's fitness on the state of an environmental gradient. It can be characterized by a mode (the genotype's optimal environment) and a width (the breadth of adaptation). It seems possible that one or both of these characters can be modified in an adaptive manner, at least partially, during development. Thus, we extend the theory of environmental tolerance to include reaction norms for the mode and the width of the tolerance curve. We demonstrate that the selective value of such reaction norms increases with increasing spatial heterogeneity and between‐generation temporal variation in the environment and with decreasing within‐generation temporal variation. Assuming that the maintenance of a high breadth of adaptation is costly, reaction, norms are shown to induce correlated selection for a reduction in this character. Nevertheless, regardless of the magnitude of the reaction norm, there is a nearly one to one relationship between the optimal breadth of adaptation and the within‐generation temporal variation perceived by the organism. This suggests that empirical estimates of the breadth of adaptation may provide a useful index of this type of environmental variation from the organism's point of view.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-59
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1992
Externally publishedYes


  • breadth of adaptation
  • environmental tolerance
  • phenotypic plasticity, quantitative genetics
  • reaction norm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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