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, the small, motile male sperm fertilizes the much larger, sessile female egg. This process produces a diploid fertilized egg called a zygote.

Some animal species—including sea stars and sea anemones, as well as some insects, reptiles, and fish—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. In contrast, a form of asexual reproduction found in certain insects and vertebrates is called parthenogenesis (or “virgin beginning”), where unfertilized eggs can develop into new male offspring. This type of parthenogenesis is called haplodiploidy. These types of asexual reproduction produce genetically identical offspring, which is disadvantageous from the perspective of evolutionary adaptability because of the potential buildup of deleterious mutations. However, for animals that are limited in their capacity to attract mates, asexual reproduction can ensure genetic propagation.

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

After fertilization, a series of developmental stages occur during which primary germ layers 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. Some animals, such as grasshoppers, undergo incomplete metamorphosis, in which the young resemble the adult. Other animals, such as some insects, undergo complete metamorphosis where individuals enter one or more larval stages that may in differ in structure and function from the adult (Figure 1). For the latter, the young 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.

The process of animal development begins with the cleavage, or series of mitotic cell divisions, of the zygote (Figure 2). Three cell divisions transform the single-celled zygote into an eight-celled structure. After further cell division and rearrangement of existing cells, a 6–32-celled hollow structure called a blastula is formed. Next, the blastula undergoes further cell division and cellular rearrangement during a process called gastrulation. This leads to the formation of the next developmental stage, the gastrula, in which the future digestive cavity is formed. Different cell layers (called germ layers) are formed during gastrulation. These germ layers are programmed to develop into certain tissue types, organs, and organ systems during a process called organogenesis.

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 2. During embryonic development, the zygote undergoes a series of mitotic cell divisions, or cleavages, to form an eight-cell stage, then a hollow blastula. During a process called gastrulation, the blastula folds inward to form a cavity in the gastrula.

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

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