J Evol Biol. 2023 Oct 28. doi: 10.1111/jeb.14238. Online ahead of print.
Anthropogenic change exposes populations to environments that have been rare or entirely absent from their evolutionary past. Such novel environments are hypothesized to release cryptic genetic variation, a hidden store of variance that can fuel evolution. However, support for this hypothesis is mixed. One possible reason is a lack of clarity in what is meant by ‘novel environment’, an umbrella term encompassing conditions with potentially contrasting effects on the exposure or concealment of cryptic variation. Here, we use a meta-analysis approach to investigate changes in the total genetic variance of multivariate traits in ancestral versus novel environments. To determine whether the definition of a novel environment could explain the mixed support for a release of cryptic genetic variation, we compared absolute novel environments, those not represented in a population’s evolutionary past, to extreme novel environments, those involving frequency or magnitude changes to environments present in a population’s ancestry. Despite sufficient statistical power, we detected no broad-scale pattern of increased genetic variance in novel environments, and finding the type of novel environment did not explain any significant variation in effect sizes. When effect sizes were partitioned by experimental design, we found increased genetic variation in studies based on broad-sense measures of variance, and decreased variation in narrow-sense studies, in support of previous research. Therefore, the source of genetic variance, not the definition of a novel environment, was key to understanding environment-dependant genetic variation, highlighting non-additive genetic variance as an important component of cryptic genetic variation and avenue for future research.