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Richard Palmer

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Evolution by natural selection requires three steps. New phenotypic variation 1) must arise, 2) must have an impact on fitness (survival or fecundity), and 3) must (ultimately) be heritable. The first step - how new variation arises - remains controversial. Traditionally, new phenotypes are ascribed to novel genotypes (mutants or recombinants). But developmental plasticity - the same genotype yields different forms in different environments - may be a much more important source of new phenotypes than generally recognized. This has renewed interest in its evolutionary significance. Our work has yielded valuable insights into the causes and adaptive significance of several striking examples of developmental plasticity and our studies of the development, genetics and evolutionary history of right-left asymmetry variation have yielded some of the strongest evidence to date for a phenotype-leads mode of evolution (sometimes called genetic assimilation). We continue to explore the interplay between developmental plasticity and evolution on both ecological time scales (via descriptive and experimental studies) and evolutionary time scales (via comparative studies).

Richard Palmer

Department of Biological Sciences

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, CANADA
Phone: (780) 492-3633, 3308, FAX: 492-9234
Curriculum Vitae

  • Professor

  • Developmental plasticity in starfish tube feet
  • Effect of hydrodynamics on barnacle mating success
  • Handed behavior and induced asymmetry in crab claws
  • Handed knotting behavior in hagfish
  • Learning and induced morphological defense in intertidal snails
  • Developmental plasticity in feeding limbs of barnacles and porcelain crabs
  • Development and evolution of conspicuous biological asymmetries in many taxa, including experimental studies of larval caddisflies and young Cancer crabs

  • Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, University of Alberta (December) 2009
  • Visiting Professor, Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences 2009-10
  • Invited Plenary Lecture, Lorentz Center, Leiden University, Netherlands (March) 2008
  • Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (June) 2007
  • Invited Plenary Lecture, Gordon Research Conference, Bryant University (July) 2006
  • Co-Founder & Inaugural Chair, Comparative Morphology & Development section,
  • Canadian Society of Zoologists 2005 - 2007
  • Invited Plenary Lecture, 100th Anniversary University of Puerto Rico
  • Graduate Student Research Symposium: "Biology of the New Millennium" 2003
  • Elected Council Member, Int’l Organization for Systematics & Evolutionary Biology 2002- 07
  • Invited Plenary Lecture, International Chirality Conference, Orlando, FL (July) 2001
  • Faculty of Science Award for Excellent Teaching, University of Alberta 2001
  • Invited Plenary Lecture, German Zoological Society, Bonn, Germany (June) 2000
  • McCalla Research Professorship, University of Alberta 2000/2001
  • Invited Participant, US National Academy of Sciences Colloquium,"Symmetries Throughout the Sciences", Irvine, CA (June) 1996
  • 76th President, Western Society of Naturalists 1995

Subject areas and related deposits

  • Developmental Stability

  • Echinoderm larvae

  • Fluctuating Asymmetry

  • Intelligent design

  • Phenotypic plasticity

    • Experimental evidence for the rapid evolution of behavioral canalization in natural populations

      Canalization—the evolutionary loss of the capacity of organisms to develop different phenotypes in different environments— is an evolutionary phenomenon suspected to occur widely, although examples in natural populations are elusive. Because behavior is typically a highly flexible component of an individual’s phenotype, it provides fertile ground for studying the evolution of canalization. Here we report how snail populations exposed for different lengths of time to a predatory crab introduced from Europe to America exhibit different degrees of canalization of an adaptive antipredator behavior: soft tissue withdrawal, measured as angular retraction depth. Where crab-snail contact is shortest (60 years), snails showed the highest behavioral flexibility. Where crabs invaded 110 years ago, snails showed significantly less behavioral flexibility, and where the interaction is ancient (Europe), snails exhibited highly canalized behavior. Selection therefore appears to have acted rapidly to increase canalization in wild snail populations, leading ultimately to the hard-wired behavior seen in European conspecifics.

  • Scale-eating cichlid fishes

    • Scale-eating cichlids: from hand(ed) to mouth

      Two recent studies in BMC Biology and Evolution raise important questions about a textbook case of frequency-dependent selection in scale-eating cichlid fishes. They also suggest a fascinating new line of research testing the effects of handed behavior on morphological asymmetry.

  • Scale-eating cichlids

    • Scale-eating cichlids: From hand(ed) to mouth.

      Two recent studies in BMC Biology and Evolution raise important questions about a textbook case of frequency-dependent selection in scale-eating cichlid fishes. They also suggest a fascinating new line of research testing the effects of handed behavior on morphological asymmetry.

  • Shell fights

    • The effect of sex, size and habitat on the incidence of puncture wounds in the claws of the porcelain crab Petrolisthes cinctipes (Anomura: Porcellanidae)

      Many porcelain crabs have an unusual claw (cheliped) form that is broad, flat and thin. This seemingly flimsy form suggests claws may be used more for display than for feeding or aggressive interactions. However, in the flat-topped porcelain crab Petrolisthes cinctipes, one of the most abundant intertidal crustaceans on the Pacific coast of North America, we observed a high proportion of individuals with puncture wounds on their claws. Claws therefore do appear to be used in intra-specific aggression. To examine factors that might influence injury prevalence, samples of P. cinctipes were collected from four sites in Barkley Sound, two wave-exposed, and two protected. In addition, laboratory experiments examined the effects of density and crab size on the incidence of puncture wounds. Crabs from wave-exposed, high-density sites and smaller crabs both exhibited significantly higher proportions of puncture wounds. Although not statistically significant, laboratory experiments revealed a trend towards a higher incidence of puncture wounds in high-density groups. Wound frequency did not differ between the sexes, so these injuries are not likely a result of intra- or inter-sexual interactions. Puncture wounds were concentrated on claw fingers (either the dactyl or propus), and along the ventral margin of the manus, both of which are likely to be nearest an opponent during shoving interactions. Overall, these data suggest that the claws of P. cinctipes mediate intra-specific competitive interactions that frequently escalate to injury.