Evolvability meets biogeography: evolutionary potential decreases at high and low environmental favourability.
Understanding and forecasting the effects of environmental change on wild populations requires knowledge on a critical question: do populations have the ability to evolve in response to that change? However, our knowledge on how evolution works in wild conditions under different environmental cir- cumstances is extremely limited. We investigated how environmental variation influences the evolutionary potential of phenotypic traits. We used published data to collect or calculate 135 estimates of evolvability of morpho- logical traits of European wild bird populations. We characterized the environmental favourability of each population throughout the species’ breed- ing distribution. Our results suggest that the evolutionary potential of morphological traits decreases as environmental favourability becomes high or low. Strong environmental selection pressures and high intra-specific competition may reduce species’ evolutionary potential in low- and high- favourability areas, respectively. This suggests that species may be least able to adapt to new climate conditions at their range margins and at the centre. Our results underscore the need to consider the evolutionary potential of populations when studying the drivers of species distributions, particularly when predicting the effects of environmental change. We discuss the utility of integrating evolutionary dynamics into a biogeographical perspective to understand how environmental variation shapes evolutionary patterns. This approach would also produce more reliable predictions about the effect of environmental change on population persistence and therefore on biodiversity.