Biological Theory

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 293–311 | Cite as

On the Unique Perspective of Paleontology in the Study of Developmental Evolution and Biases

  • Séverine Urdy
  • Laura A. B. Wilson
  • Joachim T. Haug
  • Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra
Thematic Issue Article: Emergence of Shape


The growing interest and major advances of the last decades in evolutionary developmental biology (EvoDevo) have led to the recognition of the incompleteness of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary theory. Here we discuss how paleontology makes significant contributions to integrate evolution and development. First, extinct organisms often inform us about developmental processes by showing a combination of features unrecorded in living species. We illustrate this point using the vertebrate fossil record and studies relating bone ossification to life history traits. Second, we discuss exceptionally preserved fossils that document rare ontogenetic sequences and illustrate this case with the patterns of heterochrony observed in Cambrian crustacean larvae preserved three-dimensionally. Third, most fossils potentially document the evolutionary patterns of allometry and modularity, as well as some of the (paleo)ecological factors that had influenced them. The temporal persistence of adaptive patterns in rodent evolution serves to address the importance of ecological constraints in evolution. Fourth, we discuss how the macroevolutionary patterns observed in the tetrapod limb, in the mammal molar proportions, and in the molluscan shell provide independent tests of the validity of morphogenetic models proposed on living species. Reciprocally, these macroevolutionary patterns often act as a source of inspiration to investigate the underlying rules of development, because, at the end, they are the patterns that the neo-Darwinian theory was unable to account for.


Fossils Heterochrony Modularity Morphogenesis Ontogeny Phylogeny 



We beg to be excused for the somewhat haphazard nature of the reference list of this article, as some of the topics treated here are very encompassing and have had a long history of investigation and thoughtful contributions. The article has been coordinated by MRSV, and all authors revised and commented on the different sections. MRSV thanks Jeff Schwartz and all those attending the Workshop, “The Evolution of Form,” held at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition, Altenberg, September 2010, for fruitful discussions. SU thanks Hugo Bucher (PIMUZ) for having sampled the specimens illustrated in Figs. 4 (photographs by Noel Podevigne, UCBL) and 5 (photographs by Rosi Roth, PIMUZ), and allowing them to be published here. LABW thanks Andrea Elissamburu, Alejandro Donda, Fredy Carlini, and Diego Verzi for much help in Argentina and access to collections of Actenomys. We thank Z.-X. Luo (University of Chicago) for thoughtful suggestions. JTH was kindly supported by Yale University and by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with a Feodor Lynen Research Fellowship for postdoctoral researchers. LABW was supported by a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellowship (PE 10075). SU was supported by the Swiss National Foundation (200021_124784/1 and PA00P3-136478) and the University of Zurich. This work is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation to MRSV (31003A-133032/1).


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Séverine Urdy
    • 1
  • Laura A. B. Wilson
    • 2
    • 3
  • Joachim T. Haug
    • 4
  • Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra
    • 3
  1. 1.Center for Mathematics and Computer Science (CWI), Netherlands Institute for Systems BiologyAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Kyoto University MuseumKyotoJapan
  3. 3.Paläontologisches Institut und Museum der Universität ZürichZurichSwitzerland
  4. 4.Zoologisches Institut und Museum, Cytologie und EvolutionsbiologieErnst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität GreifswaldGreifswaldGermany

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