Developmental causes of allometry: New models and implications for phenotypic plasticity and evolution

H. Frederik Nijhout, Rebecca Z. German

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Shapes change during development because tissues, organs, and various anatomical features differ in onset, rate, and duration of growth. Allometry is the study of the consequences of differences in the growth of body parts on morphology, although the field of allometry has been surprisingly little concerned with understanding the causes of differential growth. The power-law equation y=axb, commonly used to describe allometries, is fundamentally an empirical equation whose biological foundation has been little studied. Huxley showed that the power-law equation can be derived if one assumes that body parts grow with exponential kinetics, for exactly the same amount of time. In life, however, the growth of body parts is almost always sigmoidal, and few, if any, grow for exactly the same amount of time during ontogeny. Here, we explore the shapes of allometries that result from real growth patterns and analyze them with new allometric equations derived from sigmoidal growth kinetics. We use an extensive ontogenetic dataset of the growth of internal organs in the rat from birth to adulthood, and show that they grow with Gompertz sigmoid kinetics. Gompertz growth parameters of body and internal organs accurately predict the shapes of their allometries, and that nonlinear regression on allometric data can accurately estimate the underlying kinetics of growth. We also use these data to discuss the developmental relationship between static and ontogenetic allometries. We show that small changes in growth kinetics can produce large and apparently qualitatively different allometries. Large evolutionary changes in allometry can be produced by small and simple changes in growth kinetics, and we show how understanding the development of traits can greatly simplify the interpretation of how they evolved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-52
Number of pages10
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


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