Extreme environmental change during growth often results in an increase in developmental abnormalities in the morphology of an organism. The evolutionary significance of such stress-induced variation depends on the recurrence of a stressor and on the degree to which developmental errors can be accommodated by an organism's ontogeny without significant loss of function. We subjected populations of four species of soricid shrews to an extreme environment during growth and measured changes in the patterns of integration and accommodation of stress-induced developmental errors in a complex of mandibular traits. Adults that grew under an extreme environment had lower integration of morphological variation among mandibular traits and highly elevated fluctuating asymmetry in these traits, compared to individuals that grew under the control conditions. However, traits differed strongly in the magnitude of response to a stressor - traits within attachments of the same muscle (functionally integrated traits) had lower response and changed their integration less than other traits. Cohesiveness in functionally integrated complexes of traits under stress was maintained by close covariation of their developmental variation. Such developmental accommodation of stress-induced variation might enable the individual's functioning and persistence under extreme environmental conditions and thus provides a link between individual adaptation to stress and the evolution of stress resistance.
© 2005, University of Chicago Press. View original published article at 10.1086/432559.