In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maternal Effects

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • History of the Maternal Effects Concept
  • Terminology and Related Concepts
  • Mechanisms of Maternal Effects
  • Maternal Effects and the Evolution of Life Cycles
  • Maternal Effects, Phenotypic Variation, and the Response to Selection
  • Maternal Effects and Population Dynamics
  • Maternal Effects as Adaptive Plasticity
  • Maternal Effects as Non-Genetic Inheritance
  • How are Maternal Effects Studied?

Evolutionary Biology Maternal Effects
Tobias Uller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0121


A maternal effect can be considered a causal effect of the parent phenotype on the phenotype of its offspring. Maternal effects contribute fundamentally to organismal life cycles. Maternal effects also contribute to phenotypic variation, to fitness differences between individuals, and to heredity. They are therefore important to many fields of evolutionary biology, which has generated a large and heterogeneous body of literature. One of the earliest (and still most important) motivations to study maternal effects in ecology and evolution is that they influence how populations respond to environmental change. Traits that are affected by maternal effects can exhibit different evolutionary dynamics compared to traits that are not influenced by parents. Maternal effects can also make population size fluctuate over time and contribute to range expansion. Many studies of reproductive investment and parental care are effectively studies of maternal effects, even if the term was not widely used in this context before the 1990s. While traits of parents and offspring can be expected to be co-adapted, the evolution of maternal effects is complicated by the fact that parents and offspring can have different fitness optima: a phenomenon known as “parent-offspring conflict.” Maternal effects are also widely studied in the context of phenotypic plasticity. The parent can act as a cue that enables offspring to adjust their phenotype to match local conditions, a phenomenon often referred to as “adaptive transgenerational plasticity.” Transfer of information between generations is one way to think of inheritance, and the evolution of non-genetic inheritance is one of the more recent additions to the growing literature on maternal effects and evolution. To handle this diversity of perspectives, the sections below are divided into main research themes.

General Overviews

No single source covers all aspects of maternal effects in evolutionary biology, but the edited volume Mousseau and Fox 1998a covers many of the main themes (more than implied by the title). A theme issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London provides an updated coverage of problem agendas and perspectives (Uller, et al. 2009). Bonduriansky and Day 2009 covers a number of general issues, and Maestripieri and Mateo 2009 features several key themes in maternal effects research using examples from mammals. Uller 2012 covers some aspects of the evolution of maternal effects from a developmental perspective. Sultan 2015 is rich in examples of maternal effects and their ecological and evolutionary implications, in particular for plants, while Marshall, et al. 2008 is a concise general overview with examples of maternal effects in marine environments. Bernardo 1996 and Rossiter 1996 are two early general overviews.

  • Bernardo, J. 1996. Maternal effects in animal ecology. American Zoologist 36:83–105.

    DOI: 10.1093/icb/36.2.83

    An early influential overview of maternal effects.

  • Bonduriansky, R., and T. Day. 2009. Nongenetic inheritance and its evolutionary implications. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 40.1:103–125.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.39.110707.173441

    A general overview of the evolutionary implications of maternal effects under the framework of non-genetic inheritance.

  • Maestripieri, D., and J. M. Mateo. 2009. Maternal effects in mammals. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226501222.001.0001

    Covers maternal effects research on mammals, with many evolutionary aspects.

  • Marshall, D. J., R. M. Allen, and A. J. Crean. 2008. The ecological and evolutionary importance of maternal effects in the sea. In Oceanography and marine biology: An annual review. Vol. 46. Edited by R. N. Gibson, R. J. A. Atkinson, and J. D. M. Gordon, 203–250. Enfield, NH: Science Publishers.

    A general introduction and extensive coverage of the ecological and evolutionary implications of maternal effects in marine animals.

  • Mousseau, T. A., and C. W. Fox. 1998a. Maternal effects as adaptations. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A landmark volume that covers key themes in maternal effects research and had a significant impact on the field.

  • Rossiter, M. C. 1996. Incidence and consequences of inherited environmental effects. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 27:451–476.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.27.1.451

    An early influential overview of maternal effects.

  • Sultan, S. E. 2015. Organism and environment. Ecological development, niche construction, and adaptation. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199587070.001.0001

    A book that provides an ecological perspective on the evolution of development, with extensive coverage of maternal effects.

  • Uller, T. 2012. Parental effects in development and evolution. In The evolution of parental care. Edited by N. J. Royle, P. T. Smiseth, and M. Kölliker, 247–266. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A developmental perspective on the evolution of maternal effects.

  • Uller, T., E. Wapstra, and A. V. Badyaev. 2009. Evolution of parental effects: Conceptual issues and empirical patterns. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 365:1520.

    An edited theme issue that contains several well-cited papers on key themes in maternal effects research.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.