Acclimation curve data from Gradual plasticity alters population dynamics in variable environments: thermal acclimation in the green alga <i>Chlamydomonas reinhartdii</i>

Environmental variability is ubiquitous, but its effects on populations are not fully understood or predictable. Recent attention has focused on how rapid evolution can impact ecological dynamics via adaptive trait change. However, the impact of trait change arising from plastic responses has received less attention, and is often assumed to optimize performance and unfold on a separate, faster timescale than ecological dynamics. Challenging these assumptions, we propose that gradual plasticity is important for ecological dynamics, and present a study of the plastic responses of the freshwater green algae <i>Chlamydomonas reinhardtii</i> as it acclimates to temperature changes. First, we show that <i>C. reinhardtii</i>'s gradual acclimation responses can both enhance and suppress its performance after a perturbation, depending on its prior thermal history. Second, we demonstrate that where conventional approaches fail to predict the population dynamics of <i>C. reinhardtii</i> exposed to temperature fluctuations, a new model of gradual acclimation succeeds. Finally, using high-resolution data, we show that phytoplankton in lake ecosystems can experience thermal variation sufficient to make acclimation relevant. These results challenge prevailing assumptions about plasticity's interactions with ecological dynamics. Amidst the current emphasis on rapid evolution, it is critical that we also develop predictive methods accounting for plasticity.