The Evolutionary Ecology of Metamorphosis

Almost all animal species undergo metamorphosis, even though empirical data show that this life-history strategy evolved only a few times. Why is metamorphosis so widespread, and why has it evolved? Here we study the evolution of metamorphosis by using a fully size-structured population model in conjunction with the adaptive-dynamics approach. We assume that individuals compete for two food sources; one of these, the primary food source, is available to individuals of all sizes.

The secondary food source is available only to large individuals. Without metamorphosis, unresolvable tensions arise for species faced with the opportunity of specializing on such a secondary food source. We show that metamorphosis can evolve as a way to resolve these tensions, such that small individuals specialize on the primary food source while large individuals specialize on the secondary food source. We find, however, that metamorphosis evolves only when the supply rate of the secondary food source exceeds a high threshold. Individuals postpone metamorphosis when the ecological conditions under which metamorphosis originally evolved deteriorate but will often not abandon this life-history strategy, even if it causes population extinction through evolutionary trapping. In summary, our results show that metamorphosis is not easy to evolve but that, once evolved, it is hard to lose. These findings can explain the widespread occurrence of metamorphosis in the animal kingdom despite its few evolutionary origins.

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