Developmental Instability in Fragmented Populations of Prairie Phlox: A Cautionary Tale

Document Type


Peer Reviewed


Publication Date


Journal/Book/Conference Title

Conservation Biology


Considerable attention has recently been focused on using levels of developmental instability among members of a population to detect environmental or genetic stresses on animals or plants. It is not yet clear, however, that high developmental instability in a sample of individuals always indicates environmental stress or poor genetic quality. We studied 13 fragmented populations of prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa L.) to test the hypothesis that developmental instability should decrease with increasing population size-as expected if small populations suffer genetic problems associated with inbreeding or are exposed to more environmental stress than larger populations. We used two different measures of developmental instability, each calculated for two different traits: radial asymmetry of flowers (for petal width and petal length) and modular fluctuating asymmetry of leaves (for leaf widths at two points along the leaf). There were weak but significant correlations among individuals for four of six pairwise combinations of these measures. Surprisingly, three of our four measures of developmental instability showed strong population size effects that were opposite to those expected: developmental instability increased with population size. We conclude that measures of developmental instability cannot be applied uncritically for biomonitoring without considerable knowledge of developmental mechanisms, natural history, and population biology of the species in question.



Published Article/Book Citation

Conservation Biology, 13:2 (1999) pp. 274-281.

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