Antagonistic multilevel selection on size and architecture in variable density settings

Cynthia Weinig, Jill A. Johnston, Charles G. Willis, Julin N. Maloof

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34 Scopus citations


In some ecological settings, an individual's fitness depends on both its own phenotype (individual-level selection) as well as the phenotype of the individuals with which it interacts (group-level selection). Using contextual analysis to measure multilevel selection in experimental stands of Arabidopsis thaliana, we detected significant linear selection that reversed across individual versus group levels for two composite phenotypic traits, "size" and "elongation." In both cases, selection at the individual level acted to increase values of these traits, presumably due to their positive effect on resource acquisition. Group selection favored decreased values of the same traits. Nonlinear selection was weak but significant in several cases, including stabilizing selection on developmental rate; individuals with very rapid development likely had lower than average fitness due to their reduced resource level at reproduction, while very delayed reproduction may have resulted in lower fitness if prolonged competition for resources reduced overall environmental quality and fitness of all individuals in a group. Under this scenario, stabilizing selection on individual traits is evidence of selection at the group level. Significant density-dependent selection suggests that a threshold density must be reached before group selection acts. Below this threshold, selection at the individual level affects phenotypic evolution more strongly than group selection. A second experiment measured multilevel selection in progeny stands of the original experimental plants. Multilevel selection again acted antagonistically on a composite trait that included size and elongation as well as on an architectural trait, branch production. The magnitude of individual versus group selection was relatively similar in the progeny generation, and the observed balance of individual versus group selection across densities is generally consistent with the hypotheses that multilevel selection can contribute to phenotypic evolution and to important demographic phenomena, including soft selection and the "law of constant yield."

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-67
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007


  • Arabidopsis thaliana
  • Contextual analysis
  • Group selection
  • Multilevel selection
  • Shade-avoidance responses

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