Sensory trait variation in an echolocating bat suggests roles for both selection and plasticity

Background: Across heterogeneous environments selection and gene flow interact to influence the rate and extent of adaptive trait evolution. This complex relationship is further influenced by the rarely considered role of phenotypic plasticity in the evolution of adaptive population variation. Plasticity can be adaptive if it promotes colonization and survival in novel environments and in doing so may increase the potential for future population differentiation via selection. Gene flow between selectively divergent environments may favour the evolution of phenotypic plasticity or conversely, plasticity itself may promote gene flow, leading to a pattern of trait differentiation in the presence of gene flow. Variation in sensory traits is particularly informative in testing the role of environment in trait and population differentiation. Here we test the hypothesis of ‘adaptive differentiation with minimal gene flow’ in resting echolocation frequencies (RF) of Cape horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus capensis) across a gradient of increasingly cluttered habitats. Results: Our analysis reveals a geographically structured pattern of increasing RF from open to highly cluttered habitats in R. capensis; however genetic drift appears to be a minor player in the processes influencing this pattern. Although Bayesian analysis of population structure uncovered a number of spatially defined mitochondrial groups and coalescent methods revealed regional-scale gene flow, phylogenetic analysis of mitochondrial sequences did not correlate with RF differentiation. Instead, habitat discontinuities between biomes, and not genetic and geographic distances, best explained echolocation variation in this species. We argue that both selection for increased detection distance in relatively less cluttered habitats and adaptive phenotypic plasticity may have influenced the evolution of matched echolocation frequencies and habitats across different populations. Conclusions: Our study reveals significant sensory trait differentiation in the presence of historical gene flow and suggests roles for both selection and plasticity in the evolution of echolocation variation in R. capensis. These results highlight the importance of population level analyses to i) illuminate the subtle interplay between selection, plasticity and gene flow in the evolution of adaptive traits and ii) demonstrate that evolutionary processes may act simultaneously and that their relative influence may vary across different environments.