Synthesis Paper

Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 377-385

First online:

The Developmental Basis of Variational Modularity: Insights from Quantitative Genetics, Morphometrics, and Developmental Biology

  • Philipp MitteroeckerAffiliated withDepartment of Theoretical Biology, University of ViennaKonrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research Email author 

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Groups of correlated characters (variational modules) often are considered to be the result of dissociated local developmental factors, i.e., of a modular genotype–phenotype map. But certain sets of pleiotropic factors can equally well induce modular phenotypic variation—no local developmental factors are necessary for a modular covariance structure. It is thus not possible to infer genetic or developmental modularity from standing variation alone. Yet, only for approximately linear genotype–phenotype maps is the induced covariance structure stable over changes of the phenotypic mean. For larger genetic and phenotypic variation, such as on a macroevolutionary level, developmental effects often are nonlinear and variational modularity remains stable only when it is realized by local dissociated developmental factors with no overlap of pleiotropic ranges. The evo-devo concept of modularity concurs only at this macroevolutionary level with the quantitative notion of variational modularity. Empirical evidence on the genetic and developmental architecture underlying phenotypic variation is inconclusive and partly subject to methodological problems. Many studies seem to indicate modularized phenotypic variation and local clusters of QTL effects, whereas other studies find support for several alternative models of modularity and report continuous distributions of QTL effects. This inconsistency partly results from the neglect of spatial relationships among the measured traits. Given the complex development of higher organisms, a combination of pleiotropic factors and more local developmental effects with a hierarchical, overlapping, and more or less continuous distribution appears most likely.


Canalization Genotype–phenotype map Modularity Morphological integration Phenotype landscape QTL