Revealing hidden evolutionary capacity to cope with global change

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

Published in: Global Change Biology, volume 21, issue 9 (September 2015)


The extent to which global change will impact the long-term persistence of species depends on their evolutionary potential to adapt to future conditions.

While the number of studies that estimate the standing levels of adaptive genetic variation in populations under predicted global change scenarios is growing all the time, few studies have considered multiple environments simultaneously and even fewer have considered evolutionary potential in multi- variate context.

Because conditions will not be constant, adaptation to climate change is fundamentally a multivariate process so viewing genetic variances and covariances over multivariate space will always be more informative than relying on bivariate genetic correlations between traits. A multivariate approach to understanding the evolutionary capacity to cope with global change is necessary to avoid misestimating adaptive genetic variation in the dimensions in which selection will act.

We assessed the evolutionary capacity of the larval stage of the marine polychaete Galeolaria caespitosa to adapt to warmer water temperatures. Galeolaria is an important habitat-forming species in Australia, and its earlier life-history stages tend to be more susceptible to stress. We used a powerful quantitative genetics design that assessed the impacts of three temperatures on subsequent survival across over 30,000 embryos across 204 unique families.

We found adaptive genetic variation in the two cooler temperatures in our study, but none in the warmest temperature. Based on these results, we would have concluded that this species has very little capacity to evolve to the warmest temperature. However, when we explored genetic variation in multivariate space, we found evidence that larval survival has the potential to evolve even in the warmest temperatures via correlated responses to selection across thermal environments.

Future studies should take a multivariate approach to estimating evolutionary capacity to cope with global change lest they misestimate a species’ true adaptive potential.


Chirgwin E, Monro K, Sgrò CM, Marshall DJ (2015) Revealing hidden evolutionary capacity to cope with global change. Global Change Biology, 21: 3356–3366. PDF DOI