"Phenotypic plasticity as a cause of ecological tipping points"
Tipping points occur in many ecosystems through environmental drivers, such as fishing, deforestation, and desertification. Understanding the causes of tipping points is vital to prevent dramatic population shifts and extinction events. Phenotypic plasticity, the ability of one genotype to express multiple phenotypes depending on environmental conditions, has a substantial but unknown implication on these tipping points. Potential consequences of phenotypic plasticity include loss, delay, and an inability to predict tipping points. Using a system of delay-differential equations that accurately replicate experimental data, we show how phenotypic plasticity can cause, change, and mask tipping points. Using simulations and analytical techniques, we determine how and why tipping points occur in this system, demonstrating that phenotypic plasticity is indispensable in many ecosystems to predict population dynamics.
Additional authors: Prof. Christina Cobbold, University of Glasgow; Dr. Steven White, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology