Evaluating costs of heavy metal tolerance in a widely distributed, invasive butterfly

Alexander M. Shephard, Amod M. Zambre, Emilie C. Snell-Rood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Organismal tolerance to environmental pollution is thought to be constrained by fitness costs, where variants with higher survival in polluted environments have lower performance in nonpolluted environments. Yet, costs are not always detected in empirical studies. One hypothesis suggests that whether tolerance costs emerge depends on the degree of heterogeneity populations experience with respect to pollution exposure. For instance, in populations confined to local environments where pollution is persistent, selection may favour alleles that enhance pollution tolerance but reduce performance in nonpolluted environments (costs). However, in broadly distributed populations that undergo selection in both polluted and nonpolluted patches, costs should be eroded. Understanding tolerance costs in broadly distributed populations is relevant to management of invasive species, which are highly dispersive, wide ranging, and often colonize disturbed or polluted patches such as agricultural monocultures. Therefore, we conducted a case study quantifying costs of tolerance to zinc pollution (a common heavy metal pollutant) in wild cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae). This wide ranging, highly dispersive and invasive pest periodically encounters metal pollution by consuming plants in urban and agricultural settings. In contrast to expected costs of tolerance, we found that cabbage white families with greater zinc tolerance also produced more eggs and had higher reproductive effort under nonpolluted conditions. These results contribute to a more general hypothesis of why costs of pollution tolerance vary across studies: patchy selection with pollutants should erode costs and may favour genotypes that perform well under both polluted and nonpolluted conditions. This might partly explain why widely distributed invasive species are able to thrive in diverse, polluted and nonpolluted habitats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1390-1402
Number of pages13
JournalEvolutionary Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work has supported by an R.C. Lewontin Early Award from the Society for the Study of Evolution awarded to AMS. Help with butterfly rearing and data collection was provided by Noah Brown and Brandon Semke. This article was improved from feedback provided by Tim Mitchell and Amanda Hund.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Evolutionary Applications published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • anthropogenic change
  • butterfly
  • fitness cost
  • heavy metal pollution
  • invasive species
  • melanin
  • pest

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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