What is the Difference Between Phenotypic Plasticity and Adaptation

The main difference between phenotypic plasticity and adaptation is that under diverse environments, phenotypic plasticity allows a single genotype to express different phenotypes, whereas adaptation is the genetic differentiation to a particular environment.

Phenotypic plasticity and adaptation are two types of differentiations in organisms according to their environment. Both processes make phenotypes suitable for the environment.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Phenotypic Plasticity
     – Definition, Features, Importance
2. What is Adaptation
     – Definition, Features, Importance
3. Similarities Between Phenotypic Plasticity and Adaptation
     – Outline of Common Features
4. Difference Between Phenotypic Plasticity and Adaptation
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Adaptation, Phenotypic Plasticity

What is Phenotypic Plasticity

Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of the individual genotype to produce several phenotypes according to the environment. Therefore, it changes the developmental trajectories of the organism in response to specific environmental cues by expressing changes in the phenotypic state or activity. For example, an organism can change its metabolism according to the environmental conditions. Seasonal polyphenism in butterflies is a common example of phenotypic plasticity. Other examples of phenotypic plasticity include caste polyphenism in social insects, predator-induced polyphenism in cladocerans, environmental sex determination in reptiles, etc.

Figure 1: Phenotypic Plasticity

Furthermore, the expression of any trait occurs in response to the environmental conditions. However, phenotypic plasticity plays a vital role in the evolution of phenotypic traits. It allows the organism to cope with the environment while being an important property of the developmental systems of the organism. But acclimation and immune system adaptations are not considered phenotypic plasticity.

What is Adaptation

Adaptation is a dynamic evolutionary process that helps to fit the organism to its environment by enhancing its evolutionary fitness. It occurs in a population or a species but not in an individual organism. It also produces a new phenotypic trait with a functional role. Furthermore, the evolution of a novel phenotypic trait occurs through natural selection.

Figure 2: Adaptation to Pollination in Flowers

Moreover, adaptation increases the biological fitness of a population or species by altering the genetic content of the genome. Therefore, the rate of evolution is measured by the change in gene frequencies. In addition, two or more species can co-evolve by developing adaptations to the same environment (eg: flowering plants and pollination insects). Mimicry is an example of the adaptation of a species to a particular environment. It is responsible for evolving species, making them resemble objects in the environment or other organisms.

Similarities Between Phenotypic Plasticity and Adaptation

Difference Between Phenotypic Plasticity and Adaptation


Phenotypic plasticity refers to the ability of individual genotypes to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions, while adaptation refers to the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.


In phenotypic plasticity, a single genotype expresses different phenotypes according to the environment, while in adaptation, genetic differentiation is according to the environment.

Change in the Genome

Phenotypic plasticity does not change genetics, while adaptation changes genetics according to the environment.


In brief, phenotypic plasticity and adaptation are two types of evolutionary changes that affect the phenotype of the organism. In phenotypic plasticity, the organism can express different phenotypes from a single genotype according to the conditions of the environment. Therefore, it does not change the genetics of the organism according to the environment. On the other hand, adaptation is the production of different genotypes according to the environment. Thus, it changes the genetics of the organism according to the environment. In brief, the main difference between phenotypic plasticity and adaptation is the change in genetics.

  1. Fusco G, Minelli A. “Phenotypic plasticity in development and evolution: facts and concepts.” Introduction. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010 Feb 27;365(1540):547-56. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0267. 
  2. Adaptation.” Education – National Geographic.
Image Courtesy
  1. Phenotypic Plasticity Genotypes to Phenotypes” By Whatiguana – Own work (CC-BY SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia
  2. Plumpollen0060” By Aphaia – Own Work (CC-BY SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia
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