Transgenerational plasticity in the sea: context-dependent maternal effects across the life history

Ecology. 2008 Feb;89(2):418-27. doi: 10.1890/07-0449.1.


Maternal effects can have dramatic influences on the phenotype of offspring. Maternal effects can act as a conduit by which the maternal environment negatively affects offspring fitness, but they can also buffer offspring from environmental change by altering the phenotype of offspring according to local environmental conditions and as such, are a form of transgenerational plasticity. The benefits of maternal effects can be highly context dependent, increasing performance in one life-history stage but reducing it in another. While maternal effects are increasingly well understood in terrestrial systems, studies in the marine environment are typically restricted to a single, early life-history stage. Here, I examine the role of maternal effects across the life history of the bryozoan Bugula neritina. I exposed maternal colonies to a common pollution stress (copper) in the laboratory and then placed them in the field for one week to brood offspring. I then examined the resistance of offspring to copper from toxicant-exposed and toxicant-naïve mothers and found that offspring from toxicant-exposed mothers were larger, more dispersive, and more resistant to copper stress than offspring from naïve mothers. However, maternal exposure history had pervasive, negative effects on the post-metamorphic performance (particularly survival) of offspring: offspring from toxicant-exposed mothers had poorer performance after six weeks in the field, especially when facing high levels of intraspecific competition. Maternal experience can have complex effects on offspring phenotype, enhancing performance in one life-history stage while decreasing performance in another. The context-dependent costs and benefits associated with maternally derived pollution resistance may account for why such resistance is induced rather than continually expressed: mothers must balance the benefits of producing pollution-resistant larvae with the costs of producing poorer performing adults (in the absence of pollution).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Size / physiology
  • Bryozoa / drug effects
  • Bryozoa / physiology*
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Copper / metabolism
  • Copper / toxicity*
  • Ecosystem
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Larva / drug effects
  • Larva / growth & development*
  • Life Cycle Stages*
  • Male
  • Marine Biology
  • Population Density
  • Population Dynamics
  • Queensland
  • Species Specificity
  • Stress, Physiological


  • Copper