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Scrambled eggs: mechanical forces as ecological factors in early development




SUMMARY Many ecological interactions involve, at some level, mechanical forces and the movements or structural deformations they produce. Although the most familiar examples involve the functional morphology of adult structures, all life history stages (not just the adults) are subject to the laws of physics. Moreover, the success of every lineage depends on the success of every life history stage (again, not just the adults). Therefore, insights gained by using mechanical engineering principles and techniques to study ecological interactions between gametes, embryos, larvae, and their environment are essential to a well-rounded understanding of development, ecology, and evolution. Here I draw on examples from the literature and my own research to illustrate ways in which mechanical forces in the environment shape development. These include mechanical forces acting as selective factors (e.g., when coral gamete size and shape interact with turbulent water flow to determine fertilization success) and as developmental cues (e.g., when plant growth responds to gravity or bone growth responds to mechanical loading). I also examine the opposite cause-and-effect relationship by considering examples in which the development of organisms impacts ecologically relevant mechanical forces. Finally, I discuss the potential for ecological pattern formation as a result of feedback loops created by such bidirectional interactions between developmental processes and mechanical forces in the environment.