The evolution of early animal embryos: conservation or divergence?
There is a remarkable similarity in the appearance of groups of animal species during periods of their embryonic development. This classic observation has long been viewed as an emphatic realization of the principle of common descent. Despite the importance of embryonic conservation as a unifying concept, models seeking to predict and explain different patterns of conservation have remained in contention. Here, we focus on early embryonic development and discuss several lines of evidence, from recent molecular data, through developmental networks to life-history strategies, that indicate that early animal embryos are not highly conserved. Bringing this evidence together, we argue that the nature of early development often reflects adaptation to diverse ecological niches. Finally, we synthesize old and new ideas to propose a model that accounts for the evolutionary process by which embryos have come to be conserved.