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Keywords:

  • birds;
  • development;
  • early life effects;
  • genetic assimilation;
  • genetic modules;
  • heterochrony;
  • internal factors;
  • natural selection;
  • ovarian follicles

ABSTRACT

Why different bird species lay different numbers of eggs is a question that has long been associated with factors external to the organism, that is, factors which operate on inherited variation in clutch size through the action of natural selection. Yet, while external factors are important, the extent of what is evolutionarily possible rests with the mechanisms developed by birds for clutch-size control. Hitherto neglected, these mechanisms generate factors internal to the organism that are central to the origin of evolutionary change. They are related to the fact that a species-specific range of clutch size arises from the differential survival of pre-ovulatory follicles undergoing growth when the signal causing egg laying to end reaches the ovary. Herein, I examine three internal factors that, together with external factors, could impact the evolution of avian clutch size. Each factor acts by changing either the number of pre-ovulatory follicles present in the ovary at the time of follicular disruption or the timing of this event. These changes to clutch size can be explained by the concept of heterochrony. In light of this, the role of phenotypic plasticity and genes determining clutch size is discussed. Finally, to account for the origin of evolutionary change in clutch size, I detail an hypothesis involving a process similar to Waddington's theory of genetic assimilation.