Fluctuating asymmetry and developmental instability in evolutionary biology: past, present and future


Stefan Van Dongen, Group of Evolutionary Biology, University of Antwerp, Groenenborgerlaan 171, B-2020 Antwerp, Belgium.
Tel.: +32 (0)3 265 33 36; fax: +32 (0)3 265 34 74;
e-mail: stefan.vandongen@ua.ac.be


The role of developmental instability (DI), as measured by fluctuating asymmetry (FA), in evolutionary biology has been the focus of a wealth of research for more than half a century. In spite of this long period and many published papers, our current state of knowledge reviewed here only allows us to conclude that patterns are heterogeneous and that very little is known about the underlying causes of this heterogeneity. In addition, the statistical properties of FA as a measure of DI are only poorly grasped because of a general lack of understanding of the underlying mechanisms that drive DI. If we want to avoid that this area of research becomes abandoned, more efforts should be made to understand the observed heterogeneity, and attempts should be made to develop a unifying statistical protocol. More specifically, and perhaps most importantly, it is argued here that more attention should be paid to the usefulness of FA as a measure of DI since many factors might blur this relationship. Furthermore, the genetic architecture, associations with fitness and the importance of compensatory growth should be investigated under a variety of stress situations. In addition, more focus should be directed to the underlying mechanisms of DI as well as how these processes map to the observable phenotype. These insights could yield more efficient statistical models and a unified approach to the analysis of patterns in FA and DI. The study of both DI and canalization is indispensable to obtain better insights in their possible common origin, especially because both have been suggested to play a role in both micro- and macro-evolutionary processes.