Phenotypic variability: Its components, measurement and underlying developmental processes

Katherine Elizabeth Willmore, Nathan M. Young, Joan Therese Richtsmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

113 Scopus citations


Variability contrasts with variation in that variability describes the potential for variation, not simply the expressed variation. The power of studying variability lies in creating a conceptual framework around which the relationship between the genotype and phenotype can be understood. Here, we attempt to demonstrate the importance of phenotypic variability, how it structures variation, and how fundamental developmental processes structure variability. Given the broad scope of this topic, we focus on three widely studied properties of variability: canalization, developmental stability and morphological integration. We have organized the paper to emphasize the importance of differentiating between the theory surrounding these components of phenotypic variability, their measurement and the biological factors surrounding their expression. First, we define these properties of variability, how they relate to each other and to variability as a whole. Second, we summarize the common methods of measurement for canalization, developmental stability and morphological integration and the reasoning behind these methods. Finally, we focus on jaw development as an example of how the basic processes of development affect variability and the resultant variation, with emphasis on how processes at all levels of the organismal hierarchy interact with one another and contribute to phenotypic variability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)99-120
Number of pages22
JournalEvolutionary Biology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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