Behavioral constraints on local adaptation and counter-gradient variation: Implications for climate change


counter-gradient variation, life history, local adaptation, Nicrophorus orbicollis, phenotypic variation


Resource allocation to growth, reproduction, and body maintenance varies within species along latitudinal gradients. Two hypotheses explaining this variation are local adaptation and counter-gradient variation. The local adaptation hypothesis proposes that populations are adapted to local environmental conditions and are therefore less adapted to environmental conditions at other locations. The counter-gradient variation hypothesis proposes that one population out performs others across an environmental gradient because its source location has greater selective pressure than other locations. Our study had two goals. First, we tested the local adaptation and counter-gradient variation hypotheses by measuring effects of environmental temperature on phenotypic expression of reproductive traits in the burying beetle, Nicrophorus orbicollis Say, from three populations along a latitudinal gradient in a common garden experimental design. Second, we compared patterns of variation to evaluate whether traits covary or whether local adaptation of traits precludes adaptive responses by others. Across a latitudinal range, N. orbicollis exhibits variation in initiating reproduction and brood sizes. Consistent with local adaptation: (a) beetles were less likely to initiate breeding at extreme temperatures, especially when that temperature represents their source range; (b) once beetles initiate reproduction, source populations produce relatively larger broods at temperatures consistent with their local environment. Consistent with counter-gradient variation, lower latitude populations were more successful at producing offspring at lower temperatures. We found no evidence for adaptive variation in other adult or offspring performance traits. This suite of traits does not appear to coevolve along the latitudinal gradient. Rather, response to selection to breed within a narrow temperature range may preclude selection on other traits. Our study highlights that N. orbicollis uses temperature as an environmental cue to determine whether to initiate reproduction, providing insight into how behavior is modified to avoid costly reproductive attempts. Furthermore, our results suggest a temperature constraint that shapes reproductive behavior.

Original Publication Citation

Quinby, BM, Belk, MC, Creighton, JC. Behavioral constraints on local adaptation and counter‐gradient variation: Implications for climate change. Ecol Evol. 2020; 10:6688–6701.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


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Ecology and Evolution




Life Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor