The reliability of environmental cues and costs of a fixed phenotype are two factors determining whether selection favors phenotypic plasticity or environmental specialization. This study examines the relationship between these two factors and the evolution of plant competitive strategies (plastic vs. fixed morphologies). In natural plant populations, shifts in light quality associated with foliar shade reliably indicate the presence of neighbors. These cues mediate plastic stem-elongation responses that often increase competitive ability and access to light. Using experimental light treatments (full sun, neutral shade, and foliar shade), genetic differences among populations of Abutilon theophrasti (velvetleaf) in average elongation and plasticity to foliar-shade cues were examined. Six populations, two from each of three site types (fields in continuous corn cultivation, fields undergoing corn-soy rotation, and weedy sites), were exposed to the light treatments at two stages in their life history. At the seedling stage, populations derived from cornfield sites exhibited higher, average elongation than populations from either rotating corn-soy fields or weedy areas. Because seedling elongation may delay shading of velvetleaf by corn, population differences may reflect adaptive responses to directional selection imposed by competitive conditions. However, the effects of simulated foliar shade on elongation were three times as great as the average population differences, and these comparatively higher levels of elongation were associated with an allocation cost. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that phenotypic plasticity may limit the evolution of specialists; reliable environmental cues enable individuals to facultatively adopt highly elongated, costly phenotypes in crowded patches while avoiding the costs of that phenotype in less crowded microsites. At later life-history stages, populations experiencing competition with corn exhibited lower plasticity to light quality than populations derived from weedy areas. Elongation at later nodes is maladaptive in cornfields because velvetleaf is ultimately incapable of overtopping corn; individuals that elongate therefore experience the cost of allocating to stems but fail to improve leaf exposure. The decreased responsiveness of cornfield populations to light quality is consistent with theoretical predictions in which reduced plasticity is favored when environmental cues fail to mediate an adaptive response.
Corresponding Editor: D. Pi;tznero