Indications for rapid evolution of trait means and thermal plasticity in range-expanding populations of a butterfly
Currently, poleward range expansions are observed in many taxa, often in response to anthropogenic climate change. At the expanding front, populations likely face cooler and more variable temperature conditions, imposing thermal selection. This may result in changes in trait means or plasticity, the relative contribution of which is not well understood. We here investigate evolutionary change in range-expanding populations of the butterfly Pieris mannii, by comparing populations from the core and the newly established northern range under laboratory conditions. We observed both changes in trait means and in thermal reaction norms. Range-expanding populations showed a more rapid development, potentially indicative of counter-gradient variation and an increased cold tolerance compared with core populations. Genotype-environment interactions prevailed in all associated traits, such that the above differences were restricted to cooler environmental conditions. In range-expanding populations, plasticity was decreased in developmental traits enabling relatively rapid growth even under cooler conditions, but increased in cold tolerance arguably promoting higher activity under thermally challenging conditions. Notably, these changes must have occurred within a time period of ca. 10 years only. Our results suggest, in line with contemporary theory, that the evolution of plasticity may play a hitherto underestimated role for adaptation to climatic variation. However, rather than generally increased or decreased levels of plasticity, our results indicate fine-tuned, trait-specific evolutionary responses to increase fitness in novel environments.