There is increasing evidence, particularly from plants, that epigenetic mechanisms can contribute to environmental adaptation and evolution. The present article provides an overview on this topic for animals and highlights the special suitability of clonal, invasive, hybrid, polyploid, and domesticated species for environmental and evolutionary epigenetics. Laboratory and field studies with asexually reproducing animals have shown that epigenetically diverse phenotypes can be produced from the same genome either by developmental stochasticity or environmental induction. The analysis of invasions revealed that epigenetic phenotype variation may help to overcome genetic barriers typically associated with invasions such as bottlenecks and inbreeding. Research with hybrids and polyploids established that epigenetic mechanisms are involved in consolidation of speciation by contributing to reproductive isolation and restructuring of the genome in the neo-species. Epigenetic mechanisms may even have the potential to trigger speciation but evidence is still meager. The comparison of domesticated animals and their wild ancestors demonstrated heritability and selectability of phenotype modulating DNA methylation patterns. Hypotheses, model predictions, and empirical results are presented to explain how epigenetic phenotype variation could facilitate adaptation and speciation. Clonal laboratory lineages, monoclonal invaders, and adaptive radiations of different evolutionary age seem particularly suitable to empirically test the proposed ideas. A respective research agenda is presented.
Keywords: epigenetic variation • adaptation • general-purpose genotype • speciation • genome reconfiguration • monoclonal invaders