The evolution of body size: what keeps organisms small?

Q Rev Biol. 2000 Dec;75(4):385-407. doi: 10.1086/393620.


It is widely agreed that fecundity selection and sexual selection are the major evolutionary forces that select for larger body size in most organisms. The general, equilibrium view is that selection for large body size is eventually counterbalanced by opposing selective forces. While the evidence for selection favoring larger body size is overwhelming, counterbalancing selection favoring small body size is often masked by the good condition of the larger organism and is therefore less obvious. The suggested costs of large size are: (1) viability costs in juveniles due to long development and/or fast growth; (2) viability costs in adults and juveniles due to predation, parasitism, or starvation because of reduced agility, increased detectability, higher energy requirements, heat stress, and/or intrinsic costs of reproduction; (3) decreased mating success of large males due to reduced agility and/or high energy requirements; and (4) decreased reproductive success of large females and males due to late reproduction. A review of the literature indicates a substantial lack of empirical evidence for these various mechanisms and highlights the need for experimental studies that specifically address the fitness costs of being large at the ecological, physiological, and genetic levels. Specifically, theoretical investigations and comprehensive case studies of particular model species are needed to elucidate whether sporadic selection in time and space is sufficient to counterbalance perpetual and strong selection for large body size.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Constitution*
  • Diet
  • Reproduction
  • Selection, Genetic*