Evolvability and robustness in color displays: Bridging the gap between theory and Data

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25 Scopus citations


Evolution of diet-derived sexual ornaments-some of the most spectacular and diverse traits in the living world-highlights the gap between modern evolutionary theory and empirical data on the origin and inheritance of complex environment-dependent traits. Specifically, current theory offers little insight into how strong environmental contingency of diet-dependent color biosynthesis and environmental variability in precursor supply can be reconciled with extensive evolutionary elaboration, diversification, and convergence of diet-dependent displays among animal taxa. Moreover, biosynthetic pathways of diet-derived displays combine seemingly irreconcilable robustness, lability, and modularity to facilitate elaboration under variable environmental conditions. Here I show that an ontogenetic decrease in the predictability of an association between organismal and environmental components of color biosynthesis and the corresponding evolutionary transition from short-term epigenetic inheritance of peripheral biosynthetic components to genetic inheritance of the most reliable upstream components link the causes of developmental variation with the causes of inheritance in diet-derived displays. Using carotenoid-based colors as an empirical model, I outline general principles of a testable evolutionary framework of diversification and functional robustness of diet-derived displays, and suggest that such a framework provides insight into the foundational question of evolutionary biology-how to connect causes of within-generation developmental variation with causes of among-generation and among-taxa variation and thus with causes of evolution?

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-71
Number of pages11
JournalEvolutionary Biology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jun 2007


  • Carotenoids
  • Color displays
  • Complexity
  • Development
  • Evolution
  • Inheritance
  • Robustness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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