Developmental Constraints in a Comparative Framework: A Test Case Using Variations in Phalanx Number during Amniote Evolution

Michael K. Richardson*, Ariel D. Chipman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Constraints are factors that limit evolutionary change. A subset of constraints is developmental, and acts during embryonic development. There is some uncertainty about how to define developmental constraints, and how to formulate them as testable hypotheses. Furthermore, concepts such as constraint-breaking, universal constraints, and forbidden morphologies present some conceptual difficulties. One of our aims is to clarify these issues. After briefly reviewing current classifications of constraint, we define developmental constraints as those affecting morphogenetic processes in ontogeny. They may be generative or selective, although a clear distinction cannot always be drawn. We support the idea that statements about constraints are in fact statements about the relative frequency of particular transformations (where 'transformation' indicates a change from the ancestral condition). An important consequence of this is that the same transformation may be constrained in one developmental or phylogenetic context, but evolutionarily plastic in another. In this paper, we analyse developmental constraints within a phylogenetic framework, building on similar work by previous authors. Our approach is based on the following assumptions from the literature: (1) constraints are identified when there is a discrepancy between the observed frequency of a transformation, and its expected frequency; (2) the 'expected' distribution is derived by examining the phylogenetic distribution of the transformation and its associated selection pressures. Thus, by looking for congruence between these various phylogenetic distribution patterns, we can test hypotheses about constraint. We critically examine this approach using a test case: variation in phalanx-number in the amniote limb.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)8-22
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - 15 Apr 2003


Dive into the research topics of 'Developmental Constraints in a Comparative Framework: A Test Case Using Variations in Phalanx Number during Amniote Evolution'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this