Hormones are chemical signaling molecules that regulate patterns of cellular physiology and gene expression underlying phenotypic traits. Hormone-signaling pathways respond to an organism’s external environment to mediate developmental stage-specific malleability in phenotypes, so that environmental variation experienced at different stages of development has distinct effects on an organism’s phenotype. Studies of hormone-signaling are therefore playing a central role in efforts to understand how plastic phenotypic responses to environmental variation are generated during development. But, how do adaptive, hormonally mediated phenotypes evolve if the individual signaling components (hormones, conversion enzymes, membrane transporters, and receptors) that comprise any hormone-signaling pathway show expressional flexibility in response to environmental variation? What relevance do these components hold as molecular targets for selection to couple or decouple correlated hormonally mediated traits? This article explores how studying the endocrine underpinnings of phenotypic plasticity in an ecologically relevant context can provide insights into these, and other, crucial questions into the role of phenotypic plasticity in evolution, including how plasticity itself evolves. These issues are discussed in the light of investigations into how thyroid hormones mediate morphological plasticity in Death Valley’s clade of pupfishes (Cyprinodon spp.). Findings from this work with pupfish illustrate that the study of hormone-signaling from an ecological perspective can reveal how phenotypic plasticity contributes to the generation of phenotypic novelty, as well as how physiological mechanisms developmentally link an organism’s phenotype to its environmental experiences.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/slema/30/