• Developmental decoupling;
  • horned beetles;
  • microarray;
  • Onthophagus;
  • pleiotropy;
  • polyphenism;
  • relaxed selection;
  • sexual dimorphism

Developmental mechanisms play an important role in determining the costs, limits, and evolutionary consequences of phenotypic plasticity. One issue central to these claims is the hypothesis of developmental decoupling, where alternate morphs result from evolutionarily independent developmental pathways. We address this assumption through a microarray study that tests whether differences in gene expression between alternate morphs are as divergent as those between sexes, a classic example of developmental decoupling. We then examine whether genes with morph-biased expression are less conserved than genes with shared expression between morphs, as predicted if developmental decoupling relaxes pleiotropic constraints on divergence. We focus on the developing horns and brains of two species of horned beetles with impressive sexual- and morph-dimorphism in the expression of horns and fighting behavior. We find that patterns of gene expression were as divergent between morphs as they were between sexes. However, overall patterns of gene expression were also highly correlated across morphs and sexes. Morph-biased genes were more evolutionarily divergent, suggesting a role of relaxed pleiotropic constraints or relaxed selection. Together these results suggest that alternate morphs are to some extent developmentally decoupled, and that this decoupling has significant evolutionary consequences. However, alternative morphs may not be as developmentally decoupled as sometimes assumed and such hypotheses of development should be revisited and refined.