Evolutionary Implications of Habitat Choice


There is a growing realisation that habitat choice can have profound consequences for the processes of adaptation and speciation. Habitat choice may be a rapid and effective route by which individual and population fitness are increased, potentially playing a major role in adaptive evolution that has historically been solely attributed to natural selection. Recent research indicates that there may be complex interactions between habitat selection and other processes (i.e. natural selection, phenotypic plasticity) during adaptive evolution. Likewise, the use of alternative habitats by diverging lineages appears to be a major barrier to gene flow in nature, suggesting that habitat choice also plays a major role in the diversification of life. Although the available evidence is tantalising, much remains to be known about the true extent of habitat choice's role in the evolutionary process and the mechanisms underlying its evolutionary consequences.

Key Concepts

  • Habitat choice can be a cause (and a consequence) of adaptation.
  • Habitat choice may reduce or increase the scope for other processes to contribute to adaptation.
  • Habitat isolation is often a strong barrier to gene flow between diverging lineages.
  • Habitat isolation evolves early in the process of divergence.
  • Habitat isolation may have been a key contributor to the extraordinary diversity of herbivorous insects.
  • The specific mechanisms underlying individual dispersal and settlement decisions can greatly affect the evolutionary consequences of habitat choice.

Keywords: adaptation; dispersal; habitat choice; matching habitat choice; reproductive isolation; speciation

Figure 1. Habitat choice is the main driver of local crypsis in the azure sand grasshopper, Sphingonotus azurescens, in an urban habitat, a deserted housing development site consisting of asphalt roads, sidewalks, parking spaces and bike paths. Colour variation in S. azurescens is continuous and can range from bluish‐grey (a, left) to darker greyish‐brown (a, right). (a) Photos reproduced with permission from Pim Edelaar. © Pim Edelaar In the laboratory, grasshoppers painted dark (b, dark dots, left) used available dark habitat much more than grasshoppers painted pale (b, pale dots, right). Additionally, in the field, artificially darkened grasshoppers (c) were recaptured more frequently on dark asphalt, whereas pale individuals were recaptured more frequently on paler surfaces, such as sidewalks and parking spaces. (b,c) From Edelaar P, Baños‐Villalba A, Quevedo DP, Escudero G, Bolnick DI, and Jordán‐Andrade A (2019) Biased movement drives local cryptic coloration on distinct urban pavements. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286: 20191343.
Figure 2. Habitat choice contributes to local adaptation in the morphology of three‐spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) between lake and stream environments. Morphological variation is continuous in stickleback: (a) lake fish tend to have a more streamlined body shape and longer tail compared to (b) stream fish to facilitate the use of open water (limnetic) habitats. (a,b) Photos reproduced with permission from Marius Roesti. © Marius Roesti. (c) Following transplantation of lake and stream fish to the intersection of lake and stream habitats, lake individuals were more likely to be recaptured in the lake (lake to lake) and stream fish in the stream (stream to stream). Interestingly, lake fish that were recaptured in the stream (lake to stream) were more stream‐like in their morphology among lake fish. Likewise, stream fish that were recaptured in the lake (stream to lake) were more lake‐like in their morphology among stream fish. (c) From Bolnick DI, Snowberg LK, Patenia C, Stutz WE, Ingram T, and Lau OL (2009) Phenotypedependent native habitat preference facilitates divergence between parapatric lake and stream stickleback. Evolution 63: 2004–2016.
Figure 3. Phenotypic plasticity and habitat choice contribute to local adaptation in limb length in the spring salamander, Gyrionophilus porphryticus, between fast‐flowing riffles and slow‐flowing pools in headwater streams. Whereas (a) adults are mainly aquatic and sometimes make terrestrial movements at night, (b) larvae are exclusively aquatic. (a,b) Photos reproduced with permission from Todd W. Pierson. © Todd W. Pierson. (c) Habitat choice contributed to adaptation in limb length, as the probability of individuals moving between habitats and the directionality of their movement between habitats depends on limb length. Specifically, long‐limbed individuals were more likely to move from riffles to pools, whereas short‐limbed individuals were more likely to move from pools to riffles. (d) However, salamanders also showed phenotypic plasticity in limb length: the limb lengths of salamanders that moved between habitats changed to become better adapted to their destination habitats, while the limb lengths of salamanders that did not move between habitats did not change. (c,d) From Lowe WH, and Addis BR (2019) Matching habitat choice and plasticity contribute to phenotypeenvironment covariation in a stream salamander. Ecology 100: e02661.
Figure 4. The mean strength (individual contribution to total isolation) of multiple reproductive isolating barriers (±SE) across several systems. Data from Nosil P, Vines T, and Funk DJ (2005) Perspective: Reproductive isolation caused by natural selection against immigrants from divergent habitats. Evolution 59: 705–719.


Addis BR, Tobalske BW, Davenport JM and Lowe WH (2019) A distance‐performance trade‐off in the phenotypic basis of dispersal. Ecology and Evolution 9: 10644–10653.

Akcali CK and Porter CK (2017) Comment on Van Belleghem et al. 2016: habitat choice mechanisms in speciation and other forms of diversification. Evolution 71: 2754–2761.

Baños‐Villalba A, Quevedo DP and Edelaar P (2018) Positioning behavior according to individual color variation improves camouflage in novel habitats. Behavioral Ecology 29: 404–410.

Bazzaz FA (1991) Habitat selection in plants. American Naturalist 137: S116–S130.

Benkman CW (1987) Food profitability and the foraging ecology of crossbills. Ecological Monographs 57: 251–267.

Benkman CW (1993) Adaptation to single resources and the evolution of crossbill (Loxia) diversity. Ecological Monographs 63: 305–325.

Benkman CW (2017) Matching habitat choice in nomadic crossbills appears most pronounced when food is most limiting. Evolution 71: 778–785.

Berlocher SH and Feder JL (2002) Sympatric speciation in phytophagous insects: moving beyond controversy? Annual Review of Entomology 47: 773–815.

Berner D and Thibert‐Plante X (2015) How mechanisms of habitat choice preference evolve and promote divergence with gene flow. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 28: 1641–1655.

Bierbaum TJ and Bush GL (1990) Genetic differentiation in the viability of sibling species of Rhagoletis fruit flies on host plants, and the influence of reduced hybrid viability on reproductive isolation. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 55: 105–118.

Bolnick DI and Fitzpatrick BM (2007) Sympatric speciation: models and empirical evidence. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 38: 459–487.

Bolnick DI, Snowberg LK, Patenia C, et al. (2009) Phenotype‐ dependent native habitat preference facilitates divergence between parapatric lake and stream stickleback. Evolution 63: 2004–2016.

Bolnick DI (2011) Sympatric speciation in threespine stickleback: why not? International Journal of Ecology 942847: 1–15.

Bolnick DI and Otto S (2013) The magnitude of local adaptation under genotype‐dependent dispersal. Ecology and Evolution 3: 4733–4735.

Boyle J and Start D (2020) Plasticity and habitat choice match colour to function in an ambush bug. Functional Ecology doi. DOI: 10.1111/1365‐2435.13528.

Caillaud MC and Via S (2000) Specialized feeding behavior influences both ecological specialization and assortative mating in sympatric host races of pea aphids. American Naturalist 156: 606–621.

Clark AD, Deffner D, Laland K, Odling‐Smee J and Endler J (2020) Niche construction affects the variability and strength of natural selection. American Naturalist 195: 16–30.

Coyne JA and Orr HA (1989) Patterns of speciation in Drosophila. Evolution 43: 362–381.

Coyne JA and Orr HA (2004) Speciation. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Craig TP, Horner JD and Itami JK (2001) Genetics, experience, and host‐plant preference in Eurosta solidaginis: implications for host‐shifts and speciation. Evolution 55: 773–782.

Dobzhansky T (1937) Genetics and the Origin of Species. Columbia University Press: New York.

Donohue K (2003) Setting the stage: phenotypic plasticity as habitat selection. International Journal of Plant Science 164: S79–S92.

Edelaar P, Siepelski AM and Clobert J (2008) Matching habitat choice causes directed gene flow: a neglected dimension in evolution and ecology. Evolution 62: 2462–2472.

Edelaar P, Baños‐Villalba A, Escudero G and Rodríguez‐Bernal C (2017) Background colour matching increases with risk of predation in a colour‐changing grasshopper. Behavioral Ecology 20: 65–71.

Edelaar P, Baños‐Villalba A, Quevedo DP, et al. (2019) Biased movement drives local cryptic coloration on distinct urban pavements. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286: 20191343.

Egan SP, Hood GR and Ott JR (2012) Testing the role of habitat isolation among ecologically divergent gall wasp populations. International Journal of Ecology 809897: 1–8.

Endler JA (1986) Natural Selection in the Wild. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Felsenstein J (1981) Skepticism towards Santa Rosalia, or why are there so few kinds of animals? Evolution 35: 124–138.

Forister ML (2004) Oviposition preference and larval performance within a diverging lineage of lycaenid butterflies. Ecological Entomology 29: 264–272.

Funk DJ (1998) Isolating a role for natural selection in speciation: host adaptation and sexual isolation in Neochlamisus bebbianae leaf beetles. Evolution 52: 1744–1759.

Futuyma DJ (1987) On the role of species in anagenesis. American Naturalist 130: 465–473.

Gillis JEE (1982) Substrate colour‐matching cues in the cryptic grasshopper Circotettix rabula rabula (Rehn & Hebard). Animal Behaviour 30: 113–116.

Gómez‐Blanco D, Santoro S, Borrás A, et al. (2019) Beak morphology predicts apparent survival of crossbills: due to selective survival or selective dispersal? Journal of Avian Biology 50: e02107.

Grimaldi DA and Engel MS (2005) Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Hawthorne DJ and Via S (2001) Genetic linkage of ecological specialization and reproductive isolation in pea aphids. Nature 412: 904–907.

Hendry AP, Wenburg JK, Bentzen P, Volk EC and Quinn TP (2000) Rapid evolution of reproductive isolation in the wild: evidence from introduced salmon. Science 290: 516–518.

Hereford J, Hansen TF and Houle D (2004) Comparing strengths of directional selection: how strong is strong? Evolution 58: 2133–2143.

Hereford J (2009) A quantitative survey of local adaptation and fitness trade‐offs. American Naturalist 173: 579–588.

Jiang Y, Torrance L, Peichel CL and Bolnick DI (2015) Differences in rheotactic responses contribute to divergent habitat use between parapatric lake and stream threespine stickleback. Evolution 69: 2517–2524.

Jiang Y, Peichel CL, Torrance L, et al. (2017) Sensory trait variation contributes to biased dispersal of threespine stickleback in flowing water. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 30: 681–695.

Kawecki TJ and Ebert D (2004) Conceptual issues in local adaptation. Ecology Letters 7: 1225–1241.

Kingsolver JG, Hoekstra HE, Hoekstra JM, et al. (2001) The strength of phenotypic selection in natural populations. American Naturalist 157: 245–261.

Kopp M, Servedio MR, Mendelson TC, et al. (2018) Mechanisms of assortative mating in speciation: connecting theory and empirical research. American Naturalist 191: 1–20.

Lack D (1933) Habitat selection in birds. With special reference to the effects of afforestation on the Breckland avifauna. Journal of Animal Ecology 2: 239–262.

Lackey ACR and Boughman JW (2017) Evolution of reproductive isolation in stickleback fish. Evolution 71: 357–372.

Linn C Jr, Feder JL, Nojima S, et al. (2003) Fruit odor discrimination and sympatric host race formation in Rhagoletis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100: 11490–11493.

Lowe WH (2010) Explaining long‐distance dispersal: effects of dispersal distance on survival and growth in a stream salamander. Ecology 91: 3008–3015.

Lowe WH and McPeek MA (2012) Can natural selection maintain long‐distance dispersal? Insight from a stream salamander system. Evolutionary Ecology 26: 11–24.

Lowe WH, Addis BR, Smith MR and Davenport JM (2018) The spatial structure of variation in salamander survival, body condition and morphology in a headwater stream network. Freshwater Biology 63: 1287–1299.

Lowe WH and Addis BR (2019) Matching habitat choice and plasticity contribute to phenotype‐ environment covariation in a stream salamander. Ecology 100: e02661.

Matsubayashi KW, Ohshima I and Nosil P (2010) Ecological speciation in phytophagous insects. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 134: 1–27.

Maynard Smith J (1966) Sympatric speciation. American Naturalist 100: 637–650.

Mayr E (1942) Systematics and the Origin of Species. Columbia University Press: New York.

Mayr E (1947) Ecological factors in speciation. Evolution 1: 263–288.

Mayr E (1963) Animal Species and Evolution. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

de Meeûs T, Michalakis Y, Renaud F and Olivieri I (1993) Polymorphism in heterogeneous environments, evolution of habitat selection and sympatric speciation: soft and hard selection models. Evolutionary Ecology 7: 175–198.

Nicolaus M and Edelaar P (2018) Comparing the consequences of natural selection, adaptive phenotypic plasticity, and matching habitat choice for phenotype‐environment matching, population genetic structure, and reproductive isolation in meta‐populations. Ecology and Evolution 8: 3815–3827.

Nokkala C and Nokkala S (1998) Species and habitat races in the chrysomelid Galerucella nymphaeae species complex in northern Europe. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 89: 1–13.

Nonaka E, Svanbäck R, Thibert‐Plante X, Englund G and Brännström Å (2015) Mechanisms by which phenotypic plasticity affects adaptive divergence and ecological speciation. American Naturalist 186: E126–E143.

Nosil P and Crespi BI (2004) Does gene flow constrain trait divergence or vice‐versa? A test using ecomorphology and sexual isolation in Timema cristinae walking‐sticks. Evolution 58: 101–112.

Nosil P, Vines T and Funk DJ (2005) Perspective: reproductive isolation caused by natural selection against immigrants from divergent habitats. Evolution 59: 705–719.

Nosil P, Harmon L and Seehausen O (2009) Ecological explanations for (incomplete) speciation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 145–156.

Nosil P (2012) Ecological Speciation. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Pappers SM, Van der Velde G and Ouborg NJ (2002) Host preference and larval performance suggest host race formation in Galerucella nymphaeae. Oecologia 130: 433–440.

Peralta‐Rincon JR, Escudero G and Edelaar P (2017) Phenotypic plasticity in color without molt in adult grasshoppers of the genus Sphingonotus (Acrididae: Oedipodinae). Journal of Orthoptera Research 26: 21–27.

Porter CK and Benkman CW (2017) Assessing the potential contributions of reduced immigrant viability and fecundity to reproductive isolation. American Naturalist 189: 580–591.

Porter CK and Akcali CK (2018) An alternative to adaptation by sexual selection: habitat choice. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 33: 576–581.

Ramsey J, Bradshaw HD Jr and Schemske DW (2003) Components of reproductive isolation between the monkeyflowers Mimulus lewisii and M. cardinalis (Phrymaceae). Evolution 57: 1520–1534.

Ravigné V, Olivieri I and Dieckmann U (2004) Implications of habitat choice for protected polymorphisms. Evolutionary Ecology Research 6: 125–145.

Ravigné V, Dieckmann U and Olivieri I (2009) Live where you thrive: joint evolution of habitat choice and local adaptation facilitates specialization and promotes diversity. American Naturalist 174: E141–E169.

Richardson JL, Urban MC, Bolnick DI and Skelly DK (2014) Microgeographic adaptation and the spatial scale of evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 165–176.

Richter‐Boix A, Quintela M, Kierczak M, Franch M and Laurila A (2013) Fine‐grained adaptive divergence in an amphibian: genetic basis of phenotypic divergence and the role of nonrandom gene flow in restricting effective migration among wetlands. Molecular Ecology 22: 1322–1340.

Rose MR and Lauder GV (eds) (1996) Adaptation. Academic Press: San Diego.

Rueffler C, Van Dooren TJ, Leimar O and Abrams PA (2006) Disruptive selection and then what? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21: 238–245.

Scheiner SM (2016) Habitat choice and temporal variation alter the balance between adaptation by genetic differentiation, a jack‐of‐all‐trades strategy, and phenotypic plasticity. American Naturalist 187: 633–646.

Schemske DW (2010) Adaptation and the Origin of Species. American Naturalist 176: S4–S25.

Schluter D (2000) The Ecology of Adaptive Radiation. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Servedio MR and Noor MAF (2003) The role of reinforcement in speciation: theory and data meet. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 34: 339–364.

Smith JW, Benkman CW and Coffey K (1999) The use and mis‐use of public information by foraging red crossbills. Behavioral Ecology 10: 54–62.

Smith JW and Benkman CW (2012) A coevolutionary arms race causes ecological speciation in crossbills. American Naturalist 169: 455–465.

Sobel JM, Chen GF, Watt LR and Schemske DW (2010) The biology of speciation. Evolution 64: 295–315.

Sobel JM (2014) Ecogeographic isolation and speciation in the genus Mimulus. American Naturalist 184: 565–579.

Urban MC (2010) Microgeographic adaptations of spotted salamander morphological defenses in response to a predaceous salamander and beetle. Oikos 119: 646–658.

Via S (1999) Reproductive isolation between sympatric races of pea aphids. I. Gene flow restriction and habitat choice. Evolution 53: 1446–1457.

Via S, Bouck AC and Skillman S (2000) Reproductive isolation between divergent races of pea aphids on two hosts. II. Selection against migrants and hybrids in the parental environments. Evolution 54: 1626–1637.

Via S (2009) Natural selection in action during speciation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106: 9939–9946.

Webster MM, Goldsmith J, Ward AJW and Hart PJB (2007) Habitat‐specific cues influence association preferences and shoal cohesion in fish. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 62: 273–280.

Wecker SC (1963) The role of early experience in habitat selection by the prairie deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus bairdi. Ecological Monographs 33: 307–325.

Further Reading

Edelaar P and Bolnick DI (2012) Non‐random gene flow: an underappreciated force in evolution and ecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 27: 659–665.

Edelaar P and Bolnick DI (2019) Appreciating the multiple processes increasing individual or population fitness. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 34: 435–446.

Webster SE, Galindo J, Grahame JW and Butlin RK (2012) Habitat choice and speciation. International Journal of Ecology 2012: 154686.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Porter, Cody K, and Akcali, Christopher K(Aug 2020) Evolutionary Implications of Habitat Choice. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029011]