Error management theory and the adaptive significance of transgenerational maternal-stress effects on offspring phenotype

Michael J. Sheriff, Ben Dantzer, Oliver P. Love, John L. Orrock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


It is well established that circulating maternal stress hormones (glucocorticoids, GCs) can alter offspring phenotype. There is also a growing body of empirical work, within ecology and evolution, indicating that maternal GCs link the environment experienced by the mother during gestation with changes in offspring phenotype. These changes are considered to be adaptive if the maternal environment matches the offspring's environment and maladaptive if it does not. While these ideas are conceptually sound, we lack a testable framework that can be used to investigate the fitness costs and benefits of altered offspring phenotypes across relevant future environments. We present error management theory as the foundation for a framework that can be used to assess the adaptive potential of maternal stress hormones on offspring phenotype across relevant postnatal scenarios. To encourage rigorous testing of our framework, we provide field-testable hypotheses regarding the potential adaptive role of maternal stress across a diverse array of taxa and life histories, as well as suggestions regarding how our framework might provide insight into past, present, and future research. This perspective provides an informed lens through which to design and interpret experiments on the effects of maternal stress, provides a framework for predicting and testing variation in maternal stress across and within taxa, and also highlights how rapid environmental change that induces maternal stress may lead to evolutionary traps.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6473-6482
Number of pages10
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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