Processes of Animal Reproduction and Development

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the processes of animal reproduction and embryonic development

During sexual reproduction, the haploid gametes of the male and female individuals of a species combine in a process called fertilization. Typically, both male and female gametes are required: the small, motile male sperm fertilizes the typically much larger, sessile female egg. This process produces a diploid fertilized egg called a zygote.

Some animal species—including sea stars and sea anemones—are capable of asexual reproduction. The most common forms of asexual reproduction for stationary aquatic animals include budding and fragmentation, where part of a parent individual can separate and grow into a new individual. This type of asexual reproduction produces genetically identical offspring, which would appear to be disadvantageous from the perspective of evolutionary adaptability, simply because of the potential buildup of deleterious mutations.

In contrast, a form of uniparental reproduction found in some insects and a few vertebrates is called parthenogenesis (or “virgin beginning”). In this case, progeny develop from a gamete, but without fertilization. Because of the nutrients stored in eggs, only females produce parthenogenetic offspring. In some insects, unfertilized eggs develop into new male offspring. This type of sex determination is called haplodiploidy, since females are diploid (with both maternal and paternal chromosomes) and males are haploid (with only maternal chromosomes). A few vertebrates, e.g., some fish, turkeys, rattlesnakes, and whiptail lizards, are also capable of parthenogenesis. In the case of turkeys and rattlesnakes, parthenogenetically reproducing females also produce only male offspring, but not because the males are haploid. In birds and rattlesnakes, the female is the heterogametic (ZW) sex, so the only surviving progeny of post-meiotic parthenogenesis would be ZZ males. In the whiptail lizards, on the other hand, only female progeny are produced by parthenogenesis. These animals may not be identical to their parent, although they have only maternal chromosomes. However, for animals that are limited in their access to mates, uniparental reproduction can ensure genetic propagation.

In animals, the zygote progresses through a series of developmental stages, during which primary germ layers (ectoderm, endoderm, and mesoderm) are established and reorganize to form an embryo. During this process, animal tissues begin to specialize and organize into organs and organ systems, determining their future morphology and physiology.

The left part of the illustration shows a single-celled zygote. The initial cleavage, or cell division, results in a ball of cells, called the eight-cell stage. The cells do not grow during cleavage, so the eight-cell stage ball is about the same diameter as the zygote. Further cleavage results in a hollow ball of cells called a blastula. Upon gastrulation, part of the ball of cells invaginates, forming a cavity called a blastopore.

Figure 1. Development of a simple embryo. During embryonic development, the zygote undergoes a series of mitotic cell divisions, or cleavages, that subdivide the egg into smaller and smaller blastomeres. Note that the 8-cell stage and the blastula are about the same size as the original zygote. In many invertebrates, the blastula consists of a single layer of cells around a hollow space. During a process called gastrulation, the cells from the blastula move inward on one side to form an inner cavity. This inner cavity becomes the primitive gut (archenteron) of the gastrula (“little gut”) stage. The opening into this cavity is called the blastopore, and in some invertebrates it is destined to form the mouth.

Animal development begins with cleavage, a series of mitotic cell divisions, of the zygote (Figure 1). Cleavage differs from somatic cell division in that the egg is subdivided by successive cleavages into smaller and smaller cells, with no actual cell growth. The cells resulting from subdivision of the material of the egg in this way are called blastomeres. Three cell divisions transform the single-celled zygote into an eight-celled structure. After further cell division and rearrangement of existing cells, a solid morula is formed, followed by a hollow structure called a blastula. The blastula is hollow only in invertebrates whose eggs have relatively small amounts of yolk. In very yolky eggs of vertebrates, the yolk remains undivided, with most cells forming an embryonic layer on the surface of the yolk (imagine a chicken embryo growing over the egg’s yolk), which serve as food for the developing embryo.

Further cell division and cellular rearrangement leads to a process called gastrulation. Gastrulation results in two important events: the formation of the primitive gut (archenteron) or digestive cavity, and the formation of the embryonic germ layers, as we have discussed above. These germ layers are programmed to develop into certain tissue types, organs, and organ systems during a process called organogenesisDiploblastic organisms have two germ layers, endoderm and ectoderm. Endoderm forms the wall of the digestive tract, and ectoderm covers the surface of the animal. In triploblastic animals, a third layer forms: mesoderm, which differentiates into various structures between the ectoderm and endoderm, including the lining of the body cavity.

Illustration A shows the egg, nymph and adult stages of a grasshopper. The nymph stages are similar in appearance to the adult stage, but smaller. Illustration B shows the egg, larvae, pupa and adult stages of a butterfly. The pupa is a cocoon the butterfly makes when transforming from the larval to adult stages. The winged adult butterfly looks nothing like the caterpillar larva.

Figure 2. (a) The grasshopper undergoes incomplete metamorphosis. (b) The butterfly undergoes complete metamorphosis. (credit: S.E. Snodgrass, USDA)

Some animals produce larval forms that are different from the adult. In insects with incomplete metamorphosis, such as grasshoppers, the young resemble wingless adults, but gradually produce larger and larger wing buds during successive molts, until finally producing functional wings and sex organs during the last molt. Other animals, such as some insects and echinoderms, undergo complete metamorphosis in which the embryo develops into one or more feeding larval stages that may differ greatly in structure and function from the adult (Figure 2). The adult body then develops from one or more regions of larval tissue. For animals with complete metamorphosis, the larva and the adult may have different diets, limiting competition for food between them. Regardless of whether a species undergoes complete or incomplete metamorphosis, the series of developmental stages of the embryo remains largely the same for most members of the animal kingdom.

Watch the following video to see how human embryonic development (after the blastula and gastrula stages of development) reflects evolution:

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