Aligning science and policy to achieve evolutionarily enlightened conservation

Authors: Carly N Cook and Carla M Sgrò

Published in: Conservation Biology (early view)


There is increasing recognition among conservation scientists that long-term conservation outcomes could be improved through better integration of evolutionary theory into management practices. Despite concerns that the importance of key concepts emerging from evolutionary theory (i.e., evolutionary principles and processes) are not being recognized by managers, there has been little effort to determine the level of integration of evolutionary theory into conservation policy and practice.

We assessed conservation policy at 3 scales (international, national, and provincial) on 3 continents to quantify the degree to which key evolutionary concepts, such as genetic diversity and gene flow, are being incorporated into conservation practice. We also evaluated the availability of clear guidance within the applied evolutionary biology literature as to how managers can change their management practices to achieve better conservation outcomes.

Despite widespread recognition of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity, conservation policies provide little guidance about how this can be achieved in practice and other relevant evolutionary concepts, such as inbreeding depression, are mentioned rarely. In some cases the poor integration of evolutionary concepts into management reflects a lack of decision-support tools in the literature. Where these tools are available, such as risk-assessment frameworks, they are not being adopted by conservation policy makers, suggesting that the availability of a strong evidence base is not the only barrier to evolutionarily enlightened management.

We believe there is a clear need for more engagement by evolutionary biologists with policy makers to develop practical guidelines that will help managers make changes to conservation practice. There is also an urgent need for more research to better understand the barriers to and opportunities for incorporating evolutionary theory into conservation practice.


Cook CN, Sgrò CM (2017) Aligning science and policy to achieve evolutionarily enlightened conservation. Conservation Biology, PDF DOI

The relative contributions of the X chromosome and autosomes to local adaptation

Authors: Clémentine Lasne, Carla M Sgrò, and Tim Connallon

Published in: Genetics, volume 205, issue 4 (April 2017)


Models of sex chromosome and autosome evolution yield key predictions about the genomic basis of adaptive divergence, and such models have been important in guiding empirical research in comparative genomics and studies of speciation.

In addition to the adaptive differentiation that occurs between species over time, selection also favors genetic divergence across geographic space, with subpopulations of single species evolving conspicuous differences in traits involved in adaptation to local environmental conditions. The potential contribution of sex chromosomes (the X or Z) to local adaptation remains unclear, as we currently lack theory that directly links spatial variation in selection to local adaptation of X-linked and autosomal genes.

Here, we develop population genetic models that explicitly consider the effects of genetic dominance, effective population size, and sex-specific migration and selection, on the relative contributions of X-linked and autosomal genes to local adaptation.

We show that X-linked genes should nearly always disproportionately contribute to local adaptation in the presence of gene flow. We also show that considerations of dominance and effective population size — which play pivotal roles in the theory of faster-X adaptation between species — have surprisingly little influence on the relative contribution of the X chromosome to local adaptation. Instead, sex-biased migration is the primary mediator of the strength of spatial large-X effects.

Our results yield novel predictions about the role of sex chromosomes in local adaptation. We outline empirical approaches in evolutionary quantitative genetics and genomics that could build upon this new theory.


Lasne C, Sgrò CM, Connallon T (2017) The relative contributions of the X chromosome and autosomes to local adaptation. Genetics, PDF DOI

The other 96%: Can neglected sources of fitness variation offer new insights into adaptation to global change?

Authors: Evatt Chirgwin, Dustin J  Marshall, Carla M Sgrò, and Keyne Monro

Published in: Evolutionary Applications, volume 10, issue 3 (March 2017)


Mounting research considers whether populations may adapt to global change based on additive genetic variance in fitness. Yet selection acts on phenotypes, not additive genetic variance alone, meaning that persistence and evolutionary potential in the near term, at least, may be influenced by other sources of fitness variation, including nonadditive genetic and maternal environmental effects. The fitness consequences of these effects, and their environmental sensitivity, are largely unknown.

Here, applying a quantitative genetic breeding design to an ecologically important marine tubeworm, we examined nonadditive genetic and maternal environmental effects on fitness (larval survival) across three thermal environments.

We found that these effects are nontrivial and environment dependent, explaining at least 44% of all parentally derived effects on survival at any temperature and 96% of parental effects at the most stressful temperature. Unlike maternal environmental effects, which manifested at the latter temperature only, nonadditive genetic effects were consistently significant and covaried positively across temperatures (i.e., parental combinations that enhanced survival at one temperature also enhanced survival at elevated temperatures).

Thus, while nonadditive genetic and maternal environmental effects have long been neglected because their evolutionary consequences are complex, unpredictable, or seen as transient, we argue that they warrant further attention in a rapidly warming world.


Chirgwin E, Marshall DJ, Sgrò CM, Monro K (2016) The other 96%: Can neglected sources of fitness variation offer new insights into adaptation to global change? Evolutionary Applications, PDF DOI

Incorporating evolutionary adaptation in species distribution modelling reduces projected vulnerability to climate change

Authors: Alex Bush, Karel Mokany, Renee Catullo, Ary Hoffmann, Vanessa Kellermann, Carla Sgrò, Shane McEvey, and Simon Ferrier

Published in: Ecology Letters, volume 19, issue 12 (December 2016)


Based on the sensitivity of species to ongoing climate change, and numerous challenges they face tracking suitable conditions, there is growing interest in species’ capacity to adapt to climatic stress.

Here, we develop and apply a new generic modelling approach (AdaptR) that incorporates adaptive capacity through physiological limits, phenotypic plasticity, evolutionary adaptation and dispersal into a species distribution modelling framework.

Using AdaptR to predict change in the distribution of 17 species of Australian fruit flies (Drosophilidae), we show that accounting for adaptive capacity reduces projected range losses by up to 33% by 2105. We identify where local adaptation is likely to occur and apply sensitivity analyses to identify the critical factors of interest when parameters are uncertain.

Our study suggests some species could be less vulnerable than previously thought, and indicates that spatiotemporal adaptive models could help improve management interventions that support increased species’ resilience to climate change.


Bush A, Mokany K, Catullo R, Hoffmann A, Kellermann V, Sgrò C, McEvey S, Ferrier S (2016) Incorporating evolutionary adaptation in species distribution modelling reduces projected vulnerability to climate change. Ecology Letters, PDF DOI

Limited scope for plasticity to increase upper thermal limits

Authors: Belinda van Heerwaarden, Vanessa Kellermann and Carla M Sgrò

Published in: Functional Ecology (early view)


Increases in average temperature and the frequency of extreme temperature events are likely to pose a major risk to species already close to their upper physiological thermal limits. The extent to which thermal phenotypic plasticity can buffer these changes and whether plasticity is constrained by basal tolerance levels remains unknown.

We examined the effect of developmental temperature under both constant and fluctuating thermal regimes (developmental acclimation), as well as short-term heat hardening, on upper thermal limits (CTmax) in a tropical and temperate population of Drosophila melanogaster.

We found evidence for thermal plasticity in response to both developmental acclimation and hardening treatments; CTmax increased at warmer developmental temperatures and with a prior heat hardening treatment. However, hardening and acclimation responses were small, improving CTmax by a maximum of 1·01 °C. These results imply that overheating risk will only be minimally reduced by plasticity.

We observed significant associations between developmental temperature and both basal CTmax and hardening capacity (a measure of the extent of the plastic response). Basal CTmax increased, while hardening capacity decreased, with increasing developmental acclimation temperature. This indicates that increases in basal heat resistance at warmer temperatures may come at the cost of a reduced capacity to harden.

While plasticity in CTmax is evident in both populations of D. melanogaster we studied, plastic increases in upper thermal limits, particularly at warmer temperatures, may not be sufficient to keep pace with temperature increases predicted under climate change.


van Heerwaarden B, Kellerman V, Sgrò CM (2016) Limited scope for plasticity to increase upper thermal limits. Functional Ecology PDF DOI


Thermal plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster populations from eastern Australia: quantitative traits to transcripts

Authors: Allannah S Clemson, Carla M Sgrò, and Marina Telonis-Scott

Published in: Journal of Evolutionary Biology, volume 29, issue 12 (December 2016)


The flexibility afforded to genotypes in different environments by phenotypic plasticity is of interest to biologists studying thermal adaptation because of the thermal lability of many traits. Differences in thermal performance and reaction norms can provide insight into the evolution of thermal adaptation to explore broader questions such as species distributions and persistence under climate change.

One approach is to study the effects of temperature on fitness, morphological and more recently gene expression traits in populations from different climatic origins. The diverse climatic conditions experienced by Drosophila melanogaster along the eastern Australian temperate-tropical gradient are ideal given the high degree of continuous trait differentiation, but reaction norm variation has not been well studied in this system.

Here, we reared a tropical and temperate population from the ends of the gradient over six developmental temperatures and examined reaction norm variation for five quantitative traits including thermal performance for fecundity, and reaction norms for thermotolerance, body size, viability and 23 transcript-level traits.

Despite genetic variation for some quantitative traits, we found no differentiation between the populations for fecundity thermal optima and breadth, and the reaction norms for the other traits were largely parallel, supporting previous work suggesting that thermal evolution occurs by changes in trait means rather than by reaction norm shifts.

We examined reaction norm variation in our expanded thermal regime for a gene set shown to previously exhibit G×E for expression plasticity in east Australian flies, as well as key heat-shock genes.

Although there were differences in curvature between the populations suggesting a higher degree of thermal plasticity in expression patterns than for the quantitative traits, we found little evidence to support a role for genetic variation in maintaining expression plasticity.


Clemson AS, Sgrò CM, Telonis-Scott M (2016) Thermal plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster populations from eastern Australia: quantitative traits to transcripts. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, PDF DOI

PhD scholarships ×2: Evolutionary responses to environmental change

Two fully-funded PhD stipends are available for a suitably qualified student interested in working on the evolutionary responses to environmental change in my lab.

The project will be supervised by Associate Professor Carla Sgrò, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

The key questions that drive our research program are:

  1. How does the environment influence the expression of genetic variation that underpins adaptation?
  2. How important is sex-specific adaptation to evolutionary responses to environmental change? (in collaboration with Dr Tim Connallon)

Successful candidates will be fully funded for 3.5 years (the length of a PhD in Australia), for full-time research, and with no teaching requirements. The annual stipend is approximately $25,000 AUD tax-free (equivalent to approximately $33,000 before tax) with additional expenses for research, coursework, and conference attendance (once per year) also covered.

To apply, please send a CV and academic transcript to

Applicants must hold a Bachelor’s degree with first-class honours, or a master’s degree.

Review of applications will begin immediately, and short-listed candidates will be contacted to set up interviews.