Heritable plant phenotypes track light and herbivory levels at fine spatial scales

P. T. Humphrey, A. D. Gloss, J. Frazier, A. C. Nelson–Dittrich, S. Faries, N. K. Whiteman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Organismal phenotypes often co-vary with environmental variables across broad geographic ranges. Less is known about the extent to which phenotypes match local conditions when multiple biotic and abiotic stressors vary at fine spatial scales. Bittercress (Brassicaceae: Cardamine cordifolia), a perennial forb, grows across a microgeographic mosaic of two contrasting herbivory regimes: high herbivory in meadows (sun habitats) and low herbivory in deeply shaded forest understories (shade habitats). We tested for local phenotypic differentiation in plant size, leaf morphology, and anti-herbivore defense (realized resistance and defensive chemicals, i.e., glucosinolates) across this habitat mosaic through reciprocal transplant–common garden experiments with clonally propagated rhizomes. We found habitat-specific divergence in morphological and defensive phenotypes that manifested as contrasting responses to growth in shade common gardens: weak petiole elongation and attenuated defenses in populations from shade habitats, and strong petiole elongation and elevated defenses in populations from sun habitats. These divergent phenotypes are generally consistent with reciprocal local adaptation: plants from shade habitats that naturally experience low herbivory show reduced investment in defense and an attenuated shade avoidance response, owing to its ineffectiveness within forest understories. By contrast, plants from sun habitats with high herbivory show shade-induced elongation, but no evidence of attenuated defenses canonically associated with elongation in shade-intolerant plant species. Finally, we observed differences in flowering phenology between habitat types that could potentially contribute to inter-habitat divergence by reducing gene flow. This study illuminates how clonally heritable plant phenotypes track a fine-grained mosaic of herbivore pressure and light availability in a native plant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)427-445
Number of pages19
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018


  • Brassicaceae
  • Common garden
  • Microgeographic divergence
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Shade avoidance syndrome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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