Understanding the genetic and environmental bases of phenotypic variation and how they covary on local and broad geographic scales is an important goal of evolutionary ecology. Such information can shed light on how organisms adapt to different and changing environments and how life-history trade-offs arise. Surveys of phenotypic variation in 25 Littorina obtusata populations across an approximately 400-km latitudinal gradient in the Gulf of Maine revealed pronounced clines. The shells of snails from northern habitats weighed less and were thinner and weaker in compression than those of conspecifics from southern habitats. In contrast, body size (as measured by soft tissue mass) followed an opposite pattern; northern snails weighed more than southern snails.
A reciprocal transplant between a northern and southern habitat revealed substantial plasticity in shell form and body mass and their respective measures of growth. Southern snails transplanted to the northern habitat produced lighter, thinner shells and more body mass than controls raised in their native habitat. In contrast, northern snails transplanted to the southern site produced heavier, thicker shells and less body mass than controls raised in their native habitat. Patterns of final phenotypic variation for all traits were consistent with cogradient variation (i.e., a positive covariance between genetic and environmental influences). However, growth in shell traits followed a countergradient pattern (i.e., a negative covariance between genetic and environmental influences). Interestingly, body growth followed a cogradient pattern, which may reflect constraints imposed by cogradient variation in final shell size and thickness. This result suggests the existence of potential life-history trade-offs associated with increased shell production.
Differences in L. obtusata shell form, body mass, and their respective measures of growth are likely induced by geographic differences in both water temperature and the abundance of an invading crab predator (Carcinus maenas). Water temperatures averaged 6.8°C warmer during the transplant experiment and C. maenas abundance is greater in the southern Gulf of Maine. Because both increased water temperature and crab effluent affect shell form in the same way, future experiments are needed to determine the relative importance of each. Nevertheless, it is clear that phenotypic plasticity has an important role in producing geographic variation in L. obtusata shell form. Moreover, the evolution of phenotypic plasticity in L. obtusata and other marine gastropods may be driven by architectural constraints imposed by shell form on body mass and growth.
Corresponding Editor: T. Mousseau