Environmental variation is commonplace, but unpredictable. Populations that encounter a deleterious environment can sometimes avoid extinction by rapid evolutionary adaptation. Phenotypic variability, whereby a single genotype can express multiple different phenotypes, might play an important role in rescuing such populations from extinction. This type of evolutionary bet-hedging need not confer a direct benefit to a single individual, but it may increase the chance of long-term survival of a lineage. Here, we develop a population genetic model to explore how partly heritable phenotypic variability influences the probability of evolutionary rescue and the mean duration of population persistence in changing environments. We find that the probability of population persistence depends nonmonotonically on the degree of phenotypic heritability between generations: some heritability can help avert extinction, but too much heritability removes any benefit of phenotypic variability. Partly heritable phenotypic variation is particularly advantageous when it extends the persistence time of a declining population and thereby increases the chance of rescue via beneficial mutations at linked loci. We discuss the implications of these result...Continue Reading
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