Heterochrony and allometry: the analysis of evolutionary change in ontogeny

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1998 Feb;73(1):79-123. doi: 10.1017/s000632319800512x.


The connection between development and evolution has become the focus of an increasing amount of research in recent years, and heterochrony has long been a key concept in this relation. Heterochrony is defined as evolutionary change in rates and timing of developmental processes; the dimension of time is therefore an essential part in studies of heterochrony. Over the past two decades, evolutionary biologists have used several methodological frameworks to analyse heterochrony, which differ substantially in the way they characterize evolutionary changes in ontogenies and in the resulting classification, although they mostly use the same terms. This review examines how these methods compare ancestral and descendant ontogenies, emphasizing their differences and the potential for contradictory results from analyses using different frameworks. One of the two principal methods uses a clock as a graphical display for comparisons of size, shape and age at a particular ontogenic stage, whereas the other characterizes a developmental process by its time of onset, rate, and time of cessation. The literature on human heterochrony provides particularly clear examples of how these differences produce apparent contradictions when applied to the same problem. Developmental biologists recently have extended the concept of heterochrony to the earliest stages of development and have applied it at the cellular and molecular scale. This extension brought considerations of developmental mechanisms and genetics into the study of heterochrony, which previously was based primarily on phenomenological characterizations of morphological change in ontogeny. Allometry is the pattern of covariation among several morphological traits or between measures of size and shape; unlike heterochrony, allometry does not deal with time explicitly. Two main approaches to the study of allometry are distinguished, which differ in the way they characterize organismal form. One approach defines shape as proportions among measurements, based on considerations of geometric similarity, whereas the other focuses on the covariation among measurements in ontogeny and evolution. Both are related conceptually and through the use of similar algebra. In addition, there are close connections between heterochrony and changes in allometric growth trajectories, although there is no one-to-one correspondence. These relationships and outline links between different analytical frameworks are discussed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Humans
  • Morphogenesis*