Open ocean zooplankton often have been viewed as slowly evolving species that have limited capacity to respond adaptively to changing ocean conditions. Hence, attention has focused on the ecological responses of zooplankton to current global change, including range shifts and changing phenology. Here, we argue that zooplankton also are well poised for evolutionary responses to global change. We present theoretical arguments that suggest plankton species may respond rapidly to selection on mildly beneficial mutations due to exceptionally large population size, and consider the circumstantial evidence that supports our inference that selection may be particularly important for these species. We also review all primary population genetic studies of open ocean zooplankton and show that genetic isolation can be achieved at the scale of gyre systems in open ocean habitats (100s to 1000s of km). Furthermore, population genetic structure often varies across planktonic taxa, and appears to be linked to the particular ecological requirements of the organism. In combination, these characteristics should facilitate adaptive evolution to distinct oceanographic habitats in the plankton. We conclude that marine zooplankton may be capable of rapid evolutionary as well as ecological responses to changing ocean conditions, and discuss the implications of this view. We further suggest two priority areas for future research to test our hypothesis of high evolutionary potential in open ocean zooplankton, which will require (1) assessing how pervasive selection is in driving population divergence and (2) rigorously quantifying the spatial and temporal scales of population differentiation in the open ocean.
Recent attention has focused on the ecological responses of open ocean zooplankton to current global change, including range shifts and changing phenology. Here, we argue that marine zooplankton also are well poised for evolutionary responses to global change.