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Maladaptive Plasticity Masks the Effects of Natural Selection in the Red-Shouldered Soapberry Bug

Natural selection can produce local adaptation, but local adaptation can be masked by maladaptive plasticity. Maladaptive plasticity may arise as a result of gene flow producing novel gene combinations that have not been exposed to selection. In the 1980s, populations of the red-shouldered soapberry bug (Jadera haematoloma) were locally adapted to feed on the seeds of a native host plant and an introduced host plant; by 2014, local differentiation in beak length had been lost, likely as a consequence of increased gene flow. In this study, I assess the relative contributions of natural selection and plasticity to beak length on these two hosts. I confirm the earlier hypothesis that the host plant seedpod drives divergent natural selection on beak length. I then demonstrate that the proximate cause of the loss of observable differentiation in beak length is maladaptive plasticity, which masks persistent genetic differences between host-associated populations. Maladaptive plasticity is highest in areas where the two plants co-occur; in combination with historical measures of plasticity in hybrids, this indicates that maladaptive plasticity may be a consequence of ongoing gene flow. Although natural selection produced locally adapted genotypes in soapberry bugs, maladaptive plasticity is masking phenotypic differences between populations in nature.