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Natural and sexual selection are often presumed to act most directly on behavior (e.g., what an animal chooses to do when confronted by a predator), which is expressed within limits set by whole-organism performance abilities (e.g., how fast it can run) that are determined by subordinate traits (e.g., muscle fiber-type composition). A weakness of this conceptual and operational model is the absence of an explicit recognition of the place of life history traits.

Evolutionary physiology is the study of physiological evolution, which is to say, the manner in which the functional characteristics of individuals in a population of organisms have responded to selection across multiple generations during the history of the population.[1]

It is a subdiscipline of both physiology and evolutionary biology. Practitioners in this field come from a variety of backgrounds, including physiology, evolutionary biology, ecology and genetics.

Accordingly, the range of phenotypes studied by evolutionary physiologists is broad, including but not limited to life history, behavior, whole-organism performance, functional morphology, biomechanics, anatomy, classical physiology, endocrinology, biochemistry, and molecular evolution. It is closely related to comparative physiology and environmental physiology, and its findings are a major concern of evolutionary medicine.


As the name implies, evolutionary physiology is the product of what was at one time two distinct scientific disciplines. According to Garland and Carter,[1] evolutionary physiology arose in the late 1970s, following "heated" debates concerning the metabolic and thermoregulatory status of dinosaurs (see physiology of dinosaurs) and mammal-like reptiles.

This period was followed by attempts in the early 1980s to integrate quantitative genetics into evolutionary biology, which had spill-over effects on other fields, such as behavioral ecology and ecophysiology. In the mid- to late-1980s, phylogenetic comparative methods started to became popular in many fields, including physiological ecology and comparative physiology. An 1987 volume titled "New Directions in Ecological Physiology"[2] had little ecology but a considerable emphasis on evolutionary topics. It generated vigorous debate, and within a few years the National Science Foundation had developed a panel titled Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology.

Shortly thereafter, selection experiments and experimental evolution became increasingly common in evolutionary physiology. Most recently, "macrophysiology" has emerged as a subdiscipline, in which practitioners attempt to identify large-scale patterns in physiological traits (e.g., patterns of covariation with latitude) and their ecological implications.[3]

Emergent Properties of Evolutionary Physiology

As a hybrid scientific discipline, evolutionary physiology provides some unique perspectives. For example, an understanding of physiological mechanisms can help in determining whether a particular pattern of phenotypic variation or covariation (such as an allometric relationship) represents what could possibly exist or just what selection has allowed.[1] Similarly, a thorough knowledge of physiological mechanisms can greatly enhance understanding of possible reasons for evolutionary correlations and constraints than is possible for many of the traits typically studied by evolutionary biologists (such as morphology).

Areas of Research

Important areas of current research include:

  • Organismal performance as a central phenotype (e.g., measures of speed or stamina in animal locomotion)
  • Role of behavior in physiological evolution
  • Physiological and endocrinological basis of variation in life history traits (e.g., clutch size)
  • Functional significance of molecular evolution
  • Extent to which species differences are adaptive
  • Physiological underpinnings of limits to geographic ranges
  • Role of sexual selection in shaping physiological evolution
  • Magnitude of "phylogenetic signal" in physiological traits
  • Role of pathogens and parasites in physiological evolution and immunity
  • Application of optimality modeling to elucidate the degree of adaptation
  • Role of phenotypic plasticity in accounting for species differences
  • Mechanistic basis of trade-offs and constraints on evolution (e.g., putative Carrier's constraint on running and breathing)
  • Limits on sustained metabolic rate
  • Origin of allometric scaling relations or allometric laws (and the so-called metabolic theory of ecology)
  • Individual variation (see also Individual differences psychology)
  • Functional significance of biochemical polymorphisms
  • Analysis of physiological variation via quantitative genetics
  • Paleophysiology and the evolution of endothermy
  • Human adaptational physiology
  • Darwinian medicine
  • Evolution of dietary antioxidants


Funding and Societies

In the United States, research in evolutionary physiology is funded mainly by the National Science Foundation. A number of scientific societies feature sections that encompass evolutionary physiology, including:

Some journals that frequently publish articles in evolutionary physiology

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Garland, T., Jr., and P. A. Carter (1994). Evolutionary physiology. Annual Review of Physiology 56: 579–621.
  2. Feder, M. E.; A. F. Bennett, W. W. Burggren, and R. B. Huey, eds. (1987). New directions in ecological physiology, 364 pp, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  3. Chown, S. L., K. J. Gaston, and D. Robinson (2004). Macrophysiology: large-scale patterns in physiological traits and their ecological implications. Functional Ecology 18: 159–167.
  4. Bennett, A. F., and R. E. Lenski (1999). Experimental evolution and its role in evolutionary physiology. American Zoologist 39: 346–362.
  5. Irschick, D. J., J. J. Meyers, J. F. Husak, and J.-F. Le Galliard (2008). How does selection operate on whole-organism functional performance capacities? A review and synthesis. Evolutionary Ecology Research 10: 177–196.
  6. Garland, T., Jr., A. F. Bennett, and E. L. Rezende (2005). Phylogenetic approaches in comparative physiology. Journal of Experimental Biology 208: 3015–3035.

Further reading

  • Angilletta, M. J., Jr., P. H. Niewiarowski, and C. A. Navas. 2002. The evolution of thermal physiology in ectotherms. Journal of Thermal Biology 27:249-268.
  • Berenbrink, M., P. Koldkjær, O. Kepp, and A. R. Cossins. 2005. Evolution of oxygen secretion in fishes and the emergence of a complex physiological system. Science 307:1752-1757.
  • Bradley, T. J., and W. Zamer. 1999. Introduction to the Symposium: What is evolutionary physiology? American Zoologist 39:321-322.
  • Burggren, W. W., and W. E. Bemis. 1990. Studying physiological evolution: paradigms and pitfalls. Pages 191-238 in M. H. Nitecki, ed. Evolutionary innovations. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Calow, P., ed. 1987. Evolutionary physiological ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 239 pp.
  • Dean, A. M., and J. W. Thornton. 2007. Mechanistic approaches to the study of evolution: the functional synthesis. Nature Reviews Genetics 8:675-688. PDF
  • Diamond, J. M. 1993. Evolutionary physiology. Pages 89–111 in C. A. R. Boyd and D. Noble, eds. The logic of life: the challenge of integrative physiology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Dudley, R. 2000. The biomechanics of insect flight: form, function, evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Dudley, R. 2000. The evolutionary physiology of animal flight: paleobiological and present perspectives. Annual Review of Physiology 62:135-155.
  • Dudley, R., and C. Gans. 1991. A critique of symmorphosis and optimality models in physiology. Physiological Zoology 64:627-637.
  • Feder, M. E., A. F. Bennett, and R. B. Huey. 2000. Evolutionary physiology. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 31:315-341. PDF
  • Gans, C. 1974. Biomechanics: an approach to vertebrate biology. J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia. 261 pp.
  • Garland, T., Jr., and S. C. Adolph. 1994. Why not to do two-species comparative studies: limitations on inferring adaptation. Physiological Zoology 67:797-828. PDF
  • Garland, T., Jr., and P. A. Carter. 1994. Evolutionary physiology. Annual Review of Physiology 56:579-621. PDF
  • Garland, T., Jr., and M. R. Rose, eds. 2009. Experimental Evolution: Concepts, Methods, and Applications of Selection Experiments. University of California Press, Berkeley, California. In press. PDF of Table of Contents
  • Gilmour, K. M., R. W. Wilson, and K. A. Sloman. 2005. The integration of behaviour into comparative physiology. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 78:669-678.
  • Hochachka, P. W., and G. N. Somero. 2002. Biochemical adaptation — mechanism and process in physiological evolution. Oxford University Press. 478 pp. Catalog listing
  • Irschick, D. J., A. Herrel, B. Vanhooydonck, and R. Van Damme. 2007. A functional approach to sexual selection. Functional Ecology 21:621-626.
  • Lailvaux, S. P., and D. J. Irschick. 2006. A functional perspective on sexual selection: insights and future prospects. Animal Behaviour 72:263-273.
  • Mangum, C. P., and P. W. Hochachka. 1998. New directions in comparative physiology and biochemistry: mechanisms, adaptations, and evolution. Physiological Zoology 71:471-484.
  • McKenzie, J. A., and P. Batterham. 1994. The genetic, molecular and phenotypic consequences of selection for insecticide resistance. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9:166-169.
  • Mottishaw, P. D., S. J. Thornton, and P. W. Hochachka. 1999. The diving response mechanism and its surprising evolutionary path in seals and sealions. American Zoologist 39:434-450.
  • Natochin, Y. V., and T. V. Chernigovskaya. 1997. Evolutionary physiology: History, principles. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A 118:63-79.
  • Nunn, C. L., and S. M Altizer. 2006. Infectious diseases in primates: behavior, ecology and evolution. Oxford University Press (Series in Ecology and Evolution). Catalog Listing
  • Speakman, J.R. 2000. The cost of living: Field metabolic rates of small mammals. Advances in Ecological Research 30: 177-297
  • Speakman, J.R. Krol, E. and Johnston, M.S. 2004. The functional significance of individual variations in BMR. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 77: 900-915
  • Speakman, J.R. 2005. Body size, energy metabolism and lifespan. Journal of Experimental biology 208: 1717-30
  • Speakman, J.R. 2008. The physiological cost of reproduction in small mammals. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363: 375-398
  • Spicer, J. I., and K. J. Gaston. 1999. Physiological diversity and its ecological implications. Blackwell Science, Oxford, U.K. x + 241 pp.
  • Swallow, J. G., and T. Garland, Jr. 2005. Selection experiments as a tool in evolutionary and comparative physiology: insights into complex traits - An introduction to the symposium. Integrative and Comparative Biology 45:387-390. PDF
  • Vogel, S. 2003. Comparative biomechanics: life's physical world. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. xii + 580 pp. Catalog listing
  • Zera, A. J., and L. G. Harshman. 2001. The physiology of life history trade-offs. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 32:95-127.

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