Niche construction on environmental gradients : the formation of fitness valley and stratified genotypic distributions

Han, Xiaozhuo ; Hui, Cang (2014-06-10)

CITATION: Han, X. & Hui, C. 2014. Niche construction on environmental gradients: the formation of fitness valley and stratified genotypic distributions, PLoS ONE, 9(6):e99775, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099775.

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The process of niche construction can alter the trajectory of natural selection through organism-environment feedback. As such, the mechanism and impact of niche construction can be better investigated along environmental gradients. Here we investigate how the process of niche construction affects the distribution of genotypes and fitness landscape along an environmental gradient under three selection regimes, namely heterozygote superiority, genetic loci which dictates niche construction ability being either selectively neutral or non-neutral. Using a spatially explicit cellular automaton, we show that niche construction can stratify genetic diversity by forming band-like distributions consisting of different genotypic compositions and promote reproduction isolation by forming a divide with reduced average fitness along the gradients, termed a fitness valley. The band structure and the presence of a fitness valley depend on heterogeneous environments, resource-dependent fitness and the selection acting on the gene loci affecting the niche-constructing ability. Our work adds to the growing body of evidence on criticizing species distribution models which assume that the environment alone can determine species distributions. Based on the results, we argue that conservation planning should target preserving or restoring environmental gradients.

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