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Integr Comp Biol. 2011 Jul;51(1):14-25. doi: 10.1093/icb/icr017. Epub 2011 May 9.

Environmentally cued hatching across taxa: embryos respond to risk and opportunity.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Most animals begin life in eggs, protected and constrained by a capsule, shell, or other barrier. As embryos develop, their needs and abilities change, altering the costs and benefits of encapsulation, and the risks and opportunities of the outside world. When the cost/benefit ratio is better outside the egg, animals should hatch. Adaptive timing of hatching evolves in this context. However, many environmental variables affect the optimal timing of hatching so there is often no consistent best time. Across a broad range of animals, from flatworms and snails to frogs and birds, embryos hatch at different times or at different developmental stages in response to changing risks or opportunities. Embryos respond to many types of cues, assessed via different sensory modalities. Some responses appear simple. Others are surprisingly complex and sophisticated. Parents also manipulate the timing of hatching. The number and breadth of examples of cued hatching suggest that, in the absence of specific information, we should not assume that hatching timing is fixed. Our challenge now is to integrate information on the timing of hatching across taxa to better understand the diversity of patterns and how they are structured in relation to different types of environmental and developmental variation. As starting points for comparative studies, I: (1) suggest a framework based on heterokairy-individual, plastic variation in the rate, timing, or sequence of developmental events and processes-to describe patterns and mechanisms of variation in the timing of hatching; (2) briefly review the distribution of environmentally cued hatching across the three major clades of Bilateria, highlighting the diverse environmental factors and mechanisms involved; and (3) discuss factors that shape the diversity of plastic and fixed timing of hatching, drawing on evolutionary theory on phenotypic plasticity which directs our attention to fitness trade-offs, environmental heterogeneity, and predictive cues. Combining mechanistic and evolutionary perspectives is necessary because development changes organismal interactions with the environment. Integrative and comparative studies of the timing of hatching will improve our understanding of embryos as both evolving and developing organisms.

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