Ecological inheritance

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Ecological inheritance is the passing on to descendants of inherited resources and conditions, and associated modified selection pressures, through niche construction.[1] For instance, many organisms build, choose or provision nursery environments, such as nests, for their offspring. The recurrence of traits across life cycles results in part from parents constructing developmental conditions for their descendants.[2] Richard Lewontin stresses how by modifying the availability of biotic and abiotic resources, niche-constructing organisms can cause organisms to coevolve with their environments.[3]

Ecological inheritance has significant implications for macroevolution.[1][4] Ancestral species may modify environments through their niche construction that may have consequences for other species, sometimes millions of years later.[4][5] For instance, cyanobacteria produced oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis (see great oxygenation event), which dramatically changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, with vast macroevolutionary consequences.

In recent years, many evolutionary biologists have sought to expand the concept of inheritance within evolutionary biology, and ecological inheritance is now commonly incorporated into these schemes.[6][7] The evolutionary significance of ecological inheritance, however, remains disputed.[8]


  1. ^ a b Odling-Smee, F. John (2003). Niche Construction. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-04437-8.
  2. ^ Badyaev, Alexander V.; Uller, Tobias (2009). "Parental effects in ecology and evolution: mechanisms, processes and implications". Phil Trans R Soc B. 364 (1520): 1169–1177. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0302. PMC 2666689. PMID 19324619.
  3. ^ Lewontin, Richard C. (1983). "Gene, Organism and Environment". In Bendall, D. S. (ed.). Evolution from Molecules to Men. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521289337.
  4. ^ a b Erwin, Douglas H. (2008). "Macroevolution of ecosystem engineering, niche construction and diversity". Trends Ecol Evol. 23 (6): 304–310. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.01.013. PMID 18457902.
  5. ^ Erwin, Douglas H.; Valentine, James W. (2013). The Cambrian Explosion: The Reconstruction of Animal Biodiversity. Greenwood Village, Colorado: Roberts and Company. ISBN 978-1-936221-03-5.
  6. ^ Danchin, Étienne; Charmantier, Anne; Champagne, Frances A.; Mesoudi, Alex; Pujol, Benoit; Blanchet, Simon (2011). "Beyond DNA: integrating inclusive inheritance into an extended theory of evolution". Nat Rev Genet. 12 (7): 475–486. doi:10.1038/nrg3028. PMID 21681209. S2CID 8837202.
  7. ^ Bonduriansky, Russell (2012). "Rethinking heredity, again". Trends Ecol Evol. 27 (6): 330–336. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2012.02.003. PMID 22445060.
  8. ^ Scott-Phillips, T. C.; Laland, K. N.; Shuker, D. M.; Dickins, T. E.; West, S. A. (2014). "The Niche Construction Perspective: A Critical Appraisal". Evolution. 68 (5): 1231–1243. doi:10.1111/evo.12332. PMC 4261998. PMID 24325256.

Further reading[edit]

  • Odling-Smee, F. John (2010). "Niche Inheritance". In Pigliucci, Massimo; Müller, Gerd B (eds.). Evolution: The Extended Synthesis. MIT Press. doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262513678.001.0001. ISBN 978-0262513678. Frames ecological inheritance in the broader context of niche inheritance.
  • Odling-Smee, F. John; Laland, Kevin N. (2011). "Ecological inheritance and cultural inheritance: what are they and how do they differ?". Biological Theory. 6 (3): 220–230. doi:10.1007/s13752-012-0030-x. S2CID 85409192. Compares ecological and cultural inheritance.