Consequences of intraspecific genetic variation for population dynamics and niche expansion
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Intraspecific genetic diversity is an important attribute of natural populations and is deemed critical for their adaptive potential and persistence. However, we have limited empirical understanding of the impact of genetic diversity on population performance under different conditions. For my dissertation, I conducted long-term laboratory experiments with populations of the flour beetle Tribolium castaneum to test the consequences of genetic variation for population dynamic stability and niche evolution. In Chapter 1, I show that genetic variation prevented population extinction in a novel habitat. In addition, genetically diverse populations were more stable, both in a novel heterogeneous habitat and in their ancestral habitat. In the ancestral habitat, alleles from a single founding lineage dominated the dynamics, leading to increased stability of genetically diverse populations. However, such as selective effect was not observed in the novel heterogeneous habitat. Therefore, while genetic variation within populations increased their stability and persistence, the magnitude of the impact and its mechanism depended on the selective habitat. In Chapter 2, I ask whether genetic variation also facilitates resource niche expansion, i.e., use of a novel resource. Using stable carbon isotopes, I analyzed diets of beetles sampled from the above experiment and quantified the rate of change in resource use. Contrary to theoretical predictions, I found that genetic variation for resource use had no effect on the rate of niche evolution. Furthermore, behavioral niche expansion accounted for most of the adaptation to the novel resource, and the behavioral change hindered subsequent evolutionary change in resource use. It is thus apparent that in the short term, behavioral plasticity in niche use may impose far greater constraints on niche evolution than the amount of standing genetic variation. Mathematical models predict that intraspecific competition generates selection for niche evolution, and that genetic variation increases the response to selection. Therefore, I hypothesized that the impact of genetic variation on resource niche evolution may depend on the degree of intraspecific competition. In the final chapter of this thesis, I describe results of an experiment to test this hypothesis. I found that genetic variation and competition indeed interacted to increase the rate of niche expansion in T. castaneum, but that their impacts were temporally variable. Furthermore, the two factors acted on different components of niche evolution: while competition only affected the degree of niche expansion, genetic variation also promoted maintenance of individual variation in resource use. In summary, my thesis describes experiments to test for the ecological and evolutionary impacts of intraspecific genetic variation; and its interaction with behavioral plasticity, intraspecific competition, and resource availability. Genetic diversity and behavioral plasticity are common features of living organisms, and therefore it is vital to understand their combined consequences for population ecological and evolutionary dynamics. In addition, natural populations often face intense competition for limited resources. Hence the experimental results presented here can help us to better understand how populations overcome these resource constraints, given their specific genetic composition. Biologists are increasingly aware that the intricate connection between ecological and evolutionary dynamics is important to gain a more complete understanding of population biology. The work described here represents one of the few experiments providing such detailed mechanistic understanding of the interactions between- and consequences of - key ecological and evolutionary parameters. Finally, the results have important implications for conservation biology, because they show that the effects of genetic diversity can vary greatly depending on a number of population and environmental parameters.