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Study of changes in a population's functional characteristics in response to selection over time
Natural and sexual selection are often presumed to act most directly on behavior (e.g., what an animal chooses to do when confronted by a predator), which is expressed within limits set by whole-organism performance abilities (e.g., how fast it can run) that are determined by subordinatetraits (e.g., muscle fiber-type composition). A weakness of this conceptual and operational model is the absence of an explicit recognition of the place of life history traits.
Evolutionary physiology is the study of physiological evolution, which is to say, the manner in which the functional characteristics of individuals in a population of organisms have responded to selection across multiple generations during the history of the population.
As the name implies, evolutionary physiology is the product of what was at one time two distinct scientific disciplines. According to Garland and Carter, evolutionary physiology arose in the late 1970s, following debates concerning the metabolic and thermoregulatory status of dinosaurs (see physiology of dinosaurs) and mammal-like reptiles.
Shortly thereafter, selection experiments and experimental evolution became increasingly common in evolutionary physiology. Macrophysiology has emerged as a subdiscipline, in which practitioners attempt to identify large-scale patterns in physiological traits (e.g., patterns of covariation with latitude) and their ecological implications.
More recently, the importance of a merger of evolutionary biology and physiology has been argued from the perspective of functional analyses, epigenetics, and an extended evolutionary synthesis. The growth of evolutionary physiology is also reflected by the emergence of subdisciplines, such as evolutionary endocrinology, which addresses such hybrid questions as "What are the most common endocrine mechanisms that respond to selection on behavior or life-history traits?"
As a hybrid scientific discipline, evolutionary physiology provides some unique perspectives. For example, an understanding of physiological mechanisms can help in determining whether a particular pattern of phenotypic variation or covariation (such as an allometric relationship) represents what could possibly exist or just what selection has allowed. Similarly, a thorough knowledge of physiological mechanisms can greatly enhance understanding of possible reasons for evolutionary correlations and constraints than is possible for many of the traits typically studied by evolutionary biologists (such as morphology).
In the United States, research in evolutionary physiology is funded mainly by the National Science Foundation. A number of scientific societies feature sections that encompass evolutionary physiology, including:
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