Temperature profoundly affects the rate and trajectory of embryonic development, and thermal extremes can be fatal. In viviparous species, maternal behaviour and physiology can buffer the embryo from thermal fluctuations; but in oviparous animals (like most reptiles and all birds), an embryo is likely to encounter unpredictable periods when incubation temperatures are unfavourable. Thus, we might expect natural selection to have favoured traits that enable embryos to maintain development despite those fluctuations. Our review of recent research identifies three main routes that embryos use in this way. Extreme temperatures (i) can be avoided (e.g. by accelerating hatching, by moving within the egg, by cooling the egg by enhanced rates of evaporation, or by hysteresis in rates of heating versus cooling); (ii) can be tolerated (e.g. by entering diapause, by producing heat-shock proteins, or by changing oxygen use); or (iii) the embryo can adjust its physiology and/or developmental trajectory in ways that reduce the fitness penalties of unfavourable thermal conditions (e.g. by acclimating, by exploiting brief windows of favourable conditions, or by producing the hatchling phenotype best suited to those incubation conditions). Embryos are not simply passive victims of ambient conditions. Like free-living stages of the life cycle, embryos exhibit behavioural and physiological plasticity that enables them to deal with unpredictable abiotic challenges.
- developmental plasticity
- thermal acclimation