Extreme phenotypic divergence and the evolution of development.
As analyses of developmental mechanisms extend to ever more species, it becomes important to understand not just what is conserved or altered during evolution, but why. Closely related species that exhibit extreme phenotypic divergence can be uniquely informative in this regard. A case in point is the sea urchin genus Heliocidaris, which contains species that recently evolved a life history involving nonfeeding larvae following nearly half a billion years of prior evolution with feeding larvae. The resulting shift in selective regimes produced rapid and surprisingly extensive changes in developmental mechanisms that are otherwise highly conserved among echinoderm species. The magnitude and extent of these changes challenges the notion that conservation of early development in echinoderms is largely due to internal constraints that prohibit modification and instead suggests that natural selection actively maintains stability of inherently malleable trait developmental mechanisms over immense time periods. Knowing how and why natural selection changed during the evolution of nonfeeding larvae can also reveal why developmental mechanisms do and do not change in particular ways.