• protein restriction;
  • fluctuating asymmetry;
  • phenotypic variation;
  • fetal growth


Nutritional imbalance is one of the main sources of stress in both extant and extinct human populations. Restricted availability of nutrients is thought to disrupt the buffering mechanisms that contribute to developmental stability and canalization, resulting in increased levels of fluctuating asymmetry (FA) and phenotypic variance among individuals. However, the literature is contradictory in this regard. This study assesses the effect of prenatal nutritional stress on FA and among-individual variance in cranial shape and size using a mouse model of maternal protein restriction. Two sets of landmark coordinates were digitized in three dimensions from skulls of control and protein restricted specimens at E17.5 and E18.5. We found that, by the end of gestation, maternal protein restriction resulted in a significant reduction of skull size. Fluctuating asymmetry in size and shape exceeded the amount of measurement error in all groups, but no significant differences in the magnitude of FA were found between treatments. Conversely, the pattern of shape asymmetry was affected by the environmental perturbation since the angles between the first eigenvectors extracted from the covariance matrix of shape asymmetric component of protein restricted and control groups were not significantly different from the expected for random vectors. In addition, among-individual variance in cranial shape was significantly higher in the protein restricted than the control group at E18.5. Overall, the results obtained from a controlled experiment do not support the view of fluctuating asymmetry of cranial structures as a reliable index for inferring nutritional stress in human populations. Am J Phys Anthropol 154:544–553, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.