Evolutionary bet-hedging in the real world: Empirical evidence and challenges revealed by plants

Dylan Z. Childs, C. J.E. Metcalf, Mark Rees

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

267 Scopus citations


Understanding the adaptations that allow species to live in temporally variable environments is essential for predicting how they may respond to future environmental change. Variation at the intergenerational scale can allow the evolution of bet-hedging strategies: a novel genotype may be favoured over an alternative with higher arithmetic mean fitness if the new genotype experiences a sufficiently large reduction in temporal fitness variation; the successful genotype is said to have traded off its mean and variance in fitness in order to 'hedge its evolutionary bets'. We review the evidence for bet-hedging in a range of simple plant systems that have proved particularly tractable for studying bet-hedging under natural conditions. We begin by outlining the essential theory, reiterating the important distinction between conservative and diversified bet-hedging strategies. We then examine the theory and empirical evidence for the canonical example of bet-hedging: diversification via dormant seeds in annual plants. We discuss the complications that arise when moving beyond this simple case to consider more complex life-history traits, such as flowering size in semelparous perennial plants. Finally, we outline a framework for accommodating these complications, emphasizing the central role that model-based approaches can play.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3055-3064
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1697
StatePublished - Oct 22 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Bet-hedging
  • Conservative
  • Diversifying
  • Flowering
  • Germination
  • Life history


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