Do local conditions influence evolution’s ability to produce new traits? Biological data demonstrate that evolutionary processes can be profoundly influenced by local conditions. However, the evolution of novel traits has not been addressed in this context, owing in part to the challenges of performing the necessary experiments with natural organisms. We conduct in silico experiments with the Avida Digital Evolution Platform to address this question. We created eight different spatially heterogeneous environments and ran 100 replicates in each. Within each environment, we examined the distribution of locations where nine different focal traits first evolved. Using spatial statistics methods, we identified regions within each environment that had significantly elevated probabilities of containing the first organism with a given trait (i.e. hotspots of evolutionary potential). Having demonstrated the presence of many such hotspots, we explored three potential mechanisms that could drive the formation of these patterns: proximity of specific resources, variation in local diversity, and variation in the sequence of locations the members of an evolutionary lineage occupy. Resource proximity and local diversity appear to have minimal explanatory power. Lineage paths through space, however, show some promising preliminary trends. If we can understand the processes that create evolutionary hotspots, we will be able to craft environments that are more effective at evolving targeted traits. This capability would be useful both to evolutionary computation, and to efforts to guide biological evolution.

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