The development and evolution of exaggerated morphologies in insects

Douglas J. Emlen, H. Frederik Nijhout

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

409 Scopus citations


We discuss a framework for studying the evolution of morphology in insects, based on the concepts of 'phenotypic plasticity' and 'reaction norms.' We illustrate this approach with the evolution of some of the most extreme morphologies in insects: exaggerated, sexually selected male ornaments and weapons, and elaborate social insect soldier castes. Most of these traits scale with body size, and these scaling relationships are often nonlinear. We argue that scaling relationships are best viewed as reaction norms, and that the evolution of exaggerated morphological traits results from genetic changes in the slope and/or shape of these scaling relationships. After reviewing literature on sexually selected and caste-specific structures, we suggest two possible routes to the evolution of exaggerated trait dimensions: (a) the evolution of steeper scaling relationship slopes and (b) the evolution of sigmoid or discontinuous scaling relationship shapes. We discuss evolutionary implications of these two routes to exaggeration and suggest why so many of the most exaggerated insect structures scale nonlinearly with body size. Finally, we review literature on insect development to provide a comprehensive picture of how scaling relationships arise and to suggest how they may be modified through evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)661-708
Number of pages48
JournalAnnual Review of Entomology
StatePublished - 2000


  • Allometry
  • Castes
  • Polyphenism
  • Sexual selection
  • Threshold traits


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