Ecological Developmental Biology: Environmental Signals For Normal Animal Development

Document Type


Publication Date


Published In

Evolution & Development


The environment plays instructive roles in development and selective roles in evolution. This essay reviews several of the instructive roles whereby the organism has evolved to receive cues from the environment in order to modulate its developmental trajectory. The environmental cues can be abiotic (such as temperature or photoperiod) or biotic (such as those emanating from predators, conspecifics, or food), and the "alteration" produces a normal, not a pathological, phenotype, that is appropriate for the environment. In addition, symbiotic organisms can produce important signals during normal development. Environmental cues can be obligatory, such that the organism cannot develop without the environmental cue. These cues often permit and instruct the organism to proceed from one developmental stage to another, as when larvae receive cues to settle and undergo metamorphosis from substrates. Such obligatory cues can also be given by symbionts, as when Wolbachia bacteria prevent apoptosis in developing ovaries of some wasps. Other environmental cues can be used facultatively, allowing organisms to follow different developmental trajectories depending on whether the cue is present or not. This can be seen in the temperature-dependent determination of sex in many reptiles and in the determination of thermotolerance in aphids by their symbiotic bacteria. Signaling from the environment is essential in development, and co-development appears to be normative between symbionts and their hosts. Here, one sees the reciprocal induction of gene expression, just as within the embryonic organism. The ability of organisms to respond to environmental cues by producing different phenotypes may be critically important in evolution, and it may be an essential feature that can facilitate or limit evolution.