Posted by PZ Myers on June 2, 2007 12:52 PM

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In chapter 14 of the Origin of Species, Darwin wondered about the whole process of metamorphosis. Some species undergo radical transformations from embryo to adult, passing through larval stages that are very different from the adult, while others proceed directly to the adult form. This process of metamorphosis is of great interest to both developmental and evolutionary biologists, because what we see are major transitions in form not over long periods of time, but within a single generation.

We are so much accustomed to see a difference in structure between the embryo and the adult, that we are tempted to look at this difference as in some necessary manner contingent on growth. But there is no reason why, for instance, the wing of a bat, or the fin of a porpoise, should not have been sketched out with all their parts in proper proportion, as soon as any part became visible. In some whole groups of animals and in certain members of other groups this is the case, and the embryo does not at any period differ widely from the adult: thus Owen has remarked in regard to cuttlefish, "There is no metamorphosis; the cephalopodic character is manifested long before the parts of the embryo are completed." Landshells and fresh-water crustaceans are born having their proper forms, whilst the marine members of the same two great classes pass through considerable and often great changes during their development. Spiders, again, barely undergo any metamorphosis. The larvae of most insects pass through a worm-like stage, whether they are active and adapted to diversified habits, or are inactive from being placed in the midst of proper nutriment or from being fed by their parents; but in some few cases, as in that of Aphis, if we look to the admirable drawings of the development of this insect, by Professor Huxley, we see hardly any trace of the vermiform stage.

Why do some lineages undergo amazing processes of morphological change over their life histories, while others quickly settle on a single form and stick with it through their entire life? In some cases, we can even find closely related species where one goes through metamorphosis, and another doesn't; this is clearly a relatively labile character in evolution. And one of the sharpest, clearest examples of this fascinating flexibility is found in the sea urchins.

Continue reading "Evolution of direct development in echinoderms" (on Pharyngula)