Surfing on the seascape: adaptation in a changing environment

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Institute of Science and Technology Austria, Klosterneuburg, Austria
  • Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam, Germany


The environment changes constantly at various time scales and, in order to survive, species need to keep adapting. Whether these species succeed in avoiding extinction is a major evolutionary question. Using a multilocus evolutionary model of a mutation-limited population adapting under strong selection, we investigate the effects of the frequency of environmental fluctuations on adaptation. Our results rely on an “adaptive-walk” approximation and use mathematical methods from evolutionary computation theory to investigate the interplay between fluctuation frequency, the similarity of environments, and the number of loci contributing to adaptation. First, we assume a linear additive fitness function, but later generalize our results to include several types of epistasis. We show that frequent environmental changes prevent populations from reaching a fitness peak, but they may also prevent the large fitness loss that occurs after a single environmental change. Thus, the population can survive, although not thrive, in a wide range of conditions. Furthermore, we show that in a frequently changing environment, the similarity of threats that a population faces affects the level of adaptation that it is able to achieve. We check and supplement our analytical results with simulations.

Bibliographic note

© 2019 The Author(s). Evolution published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of The Society for the Study of Evolution.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1356-1374
Number of pages19
JournalEvolution; international journal of organic evolution
Issue number7
Early online date17 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • fitness landscape, changing environment, adaptation, strong selection weak mutation, adaptive walk, drift analysis