Properties of phenotypic plasticity in discrete threshold traits

Jane M. Reid* (Corresponding Author), Paul Acker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Forms of phenotypic plasticity in key traits, and forms of selection on and genetic variation in such plasticity, fundamentally underpin phenotypic, population dynamic and evolutionary responses to environmental variation and directional change. Accordingly, numerous theoretical and empirical studies have examined properties and consequences of plasticity, primarily considering traits that are continuously distributed on observed phenotypic scales with linear reaction norms. However, many environmentally sensitive traits are expressed as discrete alternative phenotypes and are appropriately characterised as quantitative genetic threshold traits. Here, we highlight that forms of phenotypic plasticity, genetic variation and inheritance in plasticity, and outcomes of selection on plasticity, could differ substantially between threshold traits and continuously distributed traits (as are typically considered). We thereby highlight theoretical developments that are required to rationalise and predict phenotypic and micro evolutionary dynamics involving plastic threshold traits, and outline how intrinsic properties of such traits could provide relatively straightforward explanations for apparently idiosyncratic observed patterns of phenotypic variation. We summarise how key quantitative genetic parameters underlying threshold traits can be estimated, and thereby set the scene for embedding dynamic discrete traits into theoretical and empirical understanding of the role of plasticity in driving phenotypic, population and evolutionary responses to enviromental variation and change.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 31 Oct 2021


  • cryptic genetic variation
  • gene by environment interaction
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • quantitive genetics
  • reaction norm
  • threshold trait


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