Send to

Choose Destination
Evol Dev. 2003 Jan-Feb;5(1):9-18.

Development and evolution of adaptive polyphenisms.

Author information

Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.


Phenotypic plasticity is the primitive character state for most if not all traits. Insofar as developmental and physiological processes obey the laws of chemistry and physics, they will be sensitive to such environmental variables as temperature, nutrient supply, ionic environment, and the availability of various macro- and micronutrients. Depending on the effect this phenotypic plasticity has on fitness, evolution may proceed to select either for mechanisms that buffer or canalize the phenotype against relevant environmental variation or for a modified plastic response in which some ranges of the phenotypic variation are adaptive to particular environments. Phenotypic plasticity can be continuous, in which case it is called a reaction norm, or discontinuous, in which case it is called a polyphenism. Although the morphological discontinuity of some polyphenisms is produced by discrete developmental switches, most polyphenisms are due to discontinuities in the environment that induce only portions of what is in reality a continuous reaction norm. In insect polyphenisms, the environmental variable that induces the alternative phenotype is a token stimulus that serves as a predictor of, but is not itself, the environment to which the polyphenism is an adaptation. In all cases studied so far, the environmental stimulus alters the endocrine mechanism of metamorphosis by altering either the pattern of hormone secretion or the pattern of hormone sensitivity in different tissues. Such changes in the patterns of endocrine interactions result in the execution of alternative developmental pathways. The spatial and temporal compartmentalization of endocrine interactions has produced a developmental mechanism that enables substantial localized changes in morphology that remain well integrated into the structure and function of the organism.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Wiley
Loading ...
Support Center