Phenotypic variation and developmental instability of life-history traits: a theory and a case study on within-population variation of resting eggs formation in Daphnia



It is commonly accepted that within-population phenotypic variation is caused by genotypic and environmental heterogeneity. Non-genotypic variation is thought to result from diversity of environmental conditions alone. This however contradicts experimental data showing that even when both genetic and environmental sources of phenotypic variation are neglected, residual variation still exists. This residual phenotypic variation is caused by deviations of developmental trajectories from the target trajectory determined for particular genotype and environment, i.e. by developmental instability. This variation is well-known for morphological traits where it is measured most often by fluctuating asymmetry, i.e. random deviations from perfect symmetry, which can be easily separated from the other type of phenotypic variation. In morphological characters which do not possess symmetry or in non-morphological characters this variation cannot usually be separated from other type of non-genotypic variation, caused by environmental heterogeneity. Most researchers still believe that all non-genotypic variation, even under standardised experimental conditions, is caused by insufficient standardization of environment, rather than by other sources of phenotypic variation. When special efforts are undertaken to analyse variation caused by developmental instability, this variation contributes substantially to non-genotypic variation. To exemplify how variation caused by developmental instability can be separated from phenotypic plasticity we analysed phenotypic variation of resting egg formation in Daphnia pulicaria. The proportion of females carrying resting eggs has been shown to depend on the photoperiod of their mothers, revealing transgeneration effects (Alekseev & Lampert 2001). Developmental instability manifests itself in differences between clonemates within an experimental vessel in a standardized environment. Some females produce resting eggs whereas others do not. Our estimations based on results obtained in experimental conditions and extrapolation to conditions in the wild showed that phenotypic plasticity, i.e. phenotypic response to changes of day duration in maternal environment (phenotypic plasticity) explains only 1-2% of phenotypic variation whereas developmental instability explains approximately 98-99% of phenotypic variance of this trait (i.e. producing or not producing resting eggs), if other factors causing phenotypic plasticity are absent. This example demonstrates a major role of developmental instability in variation of the trait under study. The contribution of developmental instability to phenotypic variation should be considered in studying evolutionary patterns of phenotypic traits.



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developmental instability, life-history traits, maternal effect, phenotypic variation, resting egg formation
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LAJUS DL, ALEKSEEV VR. Phenotypic variation and developmental instability of life-history traits: a theory and a case study on within-population variation of resting eggs formation in Daphnia. J Limnol [Internet]. 2004 Sep. 1 [cited 2021 Jun. 25];63(s1):37-44. Available from:

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