• adaptation;
  • developmental selection hypothesis;
  • egg size;
  • fluctuating asymmetry;
  • heavy metals;
  • reproductive output;
  • stress


Although developmental instability, measured as fluctuating asymmetry (FA), is expected to be positively related to stress and negatively to fitness, empirical evidence is often lacking or contradictory when patterns are compared at the population level. We demonstrate that two important properties of stressed populations may mask such relationships: (i) a stronger relationship between FA and fitness, resulting in stronger selection against low quality (i.e. developmental unstable) individuals and (ii) the evolution of adaptive responses to environmental stress. In an earlier study, we found female wolf spiders Pirata piraticus from metal exposed populations to be characterized by both reduced clutch masses and increased egg sizes, the latter indicating an adaptive response to stress. By studying the relationship between these two fitness related traits and levels of FA at individual level, we here show a significant negative correlation between FA and clutch mass in metal stressed populations but not in unstressed reference populations. As a result, levels of population FA may be biased downward under stressful conditions because of the selective removal of developmentally unstable (low quality) individuals. We further show that females that produced larger eggs in stressed populations exhibited lower individual FA levels. Such interaction between individual FA and fitness with stress may confound the effect of metal stress on FA, resulting in an absence of relationships between FA, fitness and stress at the population level.