Doing adaptive things

Make the most of the best, and the least of the worst.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Most of the traits we have considered so far involve characteristics that differ between populations or species, such as their average sex ratio, their average lifespan, and whether they are sexual or asexual. Individual organisms also possess the ability to modify what they do in response to changes they sense in their environment during their lifetime. In animals, where much of this change involves differences in what they do, we call this behaviour. In plants the differences result from changes in growth, development, and morphology.

Where animal behaviour is considered in the light of adaptation, this is called behavioural ecology. Behavioural ecology actually accounts for the majority of work in evolutionary ecology, largely because many of the conceptual advances that combined evolutionary and ecological thinking have come from considering animal behaviour. There have been numerous reviews, both academic and popular, of the core behavioural ecology material, and it is not my intention to repeat it all here. Instead, I want to show how many of the concepts have a much wider application than just to animal behaviour. Hence, to provide some balance, this chapter will focus on plants. I will cover three key concepts that crop up in other areas of the book: foraging, social evolution, and sexual selection.

Plants display numerous plastic responses to environmental stimuli during their lives that are analogous to animal behaviour (Silvertown and Gordon 1989). These include widespread responses, such as etiolation (lengthening of shoot under shade) and tropisms (growth towards or away from a gradient stimulus), as well as more unique responses, such as sex determination in ferns (females produce a chemical that induces male formation in nearby plants). In addition,behavioural ecology is concerned with very broad features of biological life: reproduction, interactions with relatives, resource acquisition, competition, to name but a few. These are, of course, features of plant as well as animal biology, hence should enlighten both.

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