Inclusive fitness, asymmetric competition and kin selection in plants
12 February 2019Ehlers, Bodil K.; Bilde, Trine
The findings that some plants alter their competitive phenotype in response to genetic relatedness of its conspecific neighbour (and presumed competitor) has spurred an increasing interest in plant kin-interactions. This phenotypic response suggests the ability to assess the genetic relatedness of conspecific competitors, proposing kin selection as a process that can influence plant competitive interactions. Kin selection can favour restrained competitive growth towards kin, if the fitness loss from reducing own growth is compensated by increased fitness in the related neighbour. This may lead to positive frequency dependency among related conspecifics with important ecological consequences for species assemblage and coexistence. However, kin selection in plants is still controversial. First, many studies documenting a plastic response to neighbour relatedness do not estimate fitness consequences of the individual that responds, and when estimated, fitness of individuals grown in competition with kin did not necessarily exceed that of individuals grown in non-kin groups. Although higher fitness in kin groups could be consistent with kin selection, this could also arise from mechanisms like asymmetric competition in the non-kin groups. Here we outline the main challenges for studying kin selection in plants taking genetic variation for competitive ability into account. We emphasize the need to measure inclusive fitness in order to assess whether kin selection occurs, and show under which circumstances kin selected responses can be expected. We also illustrate why direct fitness estimates of a focal plant, and group fitness estimates are not suitable for documenting kin selection. Importantly, natural selection occurs at the individual level and it is the inclusive fitness of an individual plant – not the mean fitness of the group - that can capture if a differential response to neighbour relatedness is favoured by kin selection.