The ability to cope with environmental change is fundamental to a species' evolution. Organisms can respond to seasonal environmental variation through phenotypic plasticity. The substantial plasticity in body mass of temperate species has often been considered a simple consequence of change in environmental quality, but could also have evolved as an adaptation to seasonality. We investigated the genetic basis of, and selection acting on, seasonal plasticity in body mass for wild bighorn sheep ewes (Ovis canadensis) at Ram Mountain, Alberta, under two contrasting environmental conditions. Heritability of plasticity, estimated as mass-specific summer and winter mass changes, was low but significant. The additive genetic variance component of relative summer mass change was greater under good environmental conditions (characterized by a population increase and high juvenile survival) than under poor conditions (population decrease and low juvenile survival). Additive genetic variance of relative winter mass change appeared independent of environmental conditions. We found evidence of selection on summer (relative) and winter (relative and absolute) mass change. For a given mass, more plastic individuals (with greater seasonal mass changes) achieve greater fitness through reproduction in the following year. However, genetic correlations between mass parameters were positive. Our study supports the hypothesis that seasonal plasticity in body mass in vertebrates is an adaptation that evolved under natural selection to cope with environmental variation but genetic correlations with other traits might limit its evolutionary potential.
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Vol. 61 • No. 8