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Mechanisms by Which Phenotypic Plasticity Affects Adaptive Divergence and Ecological Speciation

Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of one genotype to produce different phenotypes depending on environmental conditions. Several conceptual models emphasize the role of plasticity in promoting reproductive isolation and, ultimately, speciation in populations that forage on two or more resources. These models predict that plasticity plays a critical role in the early stages of speciation, prior to genetic divergence, by facilitating fast phenotypic divergence. The ability to plastically express alternative phenotypes may, however, interfere with the early phase of the formation of reproductive barriers, especially in the absence of geographic barriers. Here, we quantitatively investigate mechanisms under which plasticity can influence progress toward adaptive genetic diversification and ecological speciation. We use a stochastic, individual-based model of a predator-prey system incorporating sexual reproduction and mate choice in the predator. Our results show that evolving plasticity promotes the evolution of reproductive isolation under diversifying environments when individuals are able to correctly select a more profitable habitat with respect to their phenotypes (i.e., adaptive habitat choice) and to assortatively mate with relatively similar phenotypes. On the other hand, plasticity facilitates the evolution of plastic generalists when individuals have a limited capacity for adaptive habitat choice. We conclude that plasticity can accelerate the evolution of a reproductive barrier toward adaptive diversification and ecological speciation through enhanced phenotypic differentiation between diverging phenotypes.