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Evolution. 2000 Dec;54(6):2091-106.

An experimental study of intraspecific variation, developmental timing, and heterochrony in fishes.

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Department of Biology, University of South Dakota, Vermillion 57069, USA.


Heterochrony is widely regarded as an important evolutionary mechanism, one that may underlie most, if not all, morphological evolution, yet relatively few studies have examined variation in the sequence of development. Even fewer studies have been designed so that intraspecific variation in the relative sequence of developmental events can be assessed, although this variation must be the basis for evolutionary change. Intraspecific variation in developmental ossification sequences was documented from the zebrafish (Danio rerio) by Cubbage and Mabee (1996) and from the Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) by Mabee and Trendler (1996), but a quantitative analysis of the patterns within this variation was not made. Here, we quantify the effect of rearing temperature on the sequence of ossification and characterize the levels and patterns of intraspecific variation in these fishes. For Danio, there were no temperature effects on the sequence of bone development across the cranium, cranial region development, cartilage versus dermal bones, or lateral line bone versus nonassociated bones. Likewise the level of variation in relative sequence (position) of ossification was low, about two ranks, across temperatures. At higher temperatures, we found higher levels of variation in iterated cranial bones and less in bones forming early in the sequence. No temperature effects on variation were found among regions, between lateral line-associated bones and nonassociated bones, between median and paired bones, or across the entire sequence, indicating concordant variability among the three temperatures. Individual bones with the highest levels of variability were not consistent among temperatures. Baseline patterns of intraspecific variation in Danio were compared to those of Betta. For both species, the level of intraspecific variation in sequence position was low and the variability of cranial bones was concordant. Individual bones with the highest levels of variability were not consistent between species. In both species, variation was widespread (distributed evenly across the sequence). We used comparisons (among regions, between dermal and cartilage bones, between lateral line-associated and other bones, between median and paired bones, between iterated and noniterated bones, between feeding-associated bones and others) to see which subsets were most variable and thus potentially useful in predicting high levels of evolutionary change. The only subset of bones that was significantly more variable than others was cartilage bones. If interspecific patterns are parallel to these intraspecific differences, cartilage bones would be expected to show higher levels of heterochrony. Although concordance across the cranial ossification sequence and among regions in Danio, Betta, and two other teleosts, Oryzias and Barbus, suggests an evolutionarily conserved pattern of ossification, identity in sequence position across taxa was not observed for any bone. Thus, variation existed in sequence position across temperatures and species. Intraspecific variation of this sort may influence the morphological outcome and evolutionary trajectories of species.

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