Egg laying or live birth: How evolution chooses


EXCERPTS: The old riddle, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is relatively easy to answer as a question about the evolution of birth in animals. Egg laying almost certainly came before live birth; the armored fish that inhabited the oceans half a billion years ago and were ancestral to all land vertebrates seem to have laid eggs. But the rest of the story is far from straightforward.

Over millennia of evolution, nature has come up with only two ways for a newborn animal to come into the world. Either its mother lays it in an egg, where it can continue to grow before hatching, or it stays inside its mother until emerging as a more fully formed squirming newborn. “We have this really fundamental split,” said Camilla Whittington, a biologist at the University of Sydney.

Is there some primordial reason for this strict reproductive dichotomy between egg laying (oviparity) and live birth (viviparity)? When and why did live birth evolve? These are just some of the questions that new research — including studies of a remarkable lizard that can lay eggs and bear live young at the same time — is exploring, all the while underscoring the enormous complexity and variability of sexual reproduction.

[...] The major difference between oviparity and viviparity therefore centers on a strategic evolutionary decision about when the mother should deposit her embryos. If she deposits them early, she’s an egg layer, and if she deposits them late, she’s a live bearer. Most reptiles, for instance, deposit their embryos just a third of the way through their development.

“Between true egg laying and live bearing there’s a whole range of possible times [to deposit the embryo], but it’s probably disadvantageous to do that [...] We call it a fitness valley.” Animals that try to give birth somewhere in that fitness valley might incur all the risks of egg laying and live bearing without reaping the benefits of either. “We think that, evolutionarily, that’s quite disadvantageous,” she said.

(Marsupials found a novel solution to balancing these risks: The young they give birth to are practically fetal in their immaturity, but they then finish their development inside their mother’s pouch. In this way, the mother can provide the protective advantages of carrying her young to full term without needing to accommodate a full-size newborn inside her body.)

Scientists are still learning about the developmental constraints and requirements of these birth strategies. Consider, for instance, the thickness of an eggshell. [...] before a species could evolve live birth, it probably had to evolve the ability to determine the sex of its offspring genetically. ... Live birth or egg laying might seem like a definitive either-or choice for a species, but surprisingly, that’s not always the case... (MORE - details)

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