Complete metamorphosis of insects

Jens Rolff, Paul R Johnston, Stuart Reynolds

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

96 Citations (Scopus)


The majority of described hexapod species are holometabolous insects, undergoing an extreme form of metamorphosis with an intercalated pupal stage between the larva and adult, in which organs and tissues are extensively remodelled and in some cases completely rebuilt. Here, we review how and why this developmental strategy has evolved. While there are many theories explaining the evolution of metamorphosis, many of which fit under the hypothesis of decoupling of life stages, there are few clear adaptive hypotheses on why complete metamorphosis evolved. We propose that the main adaptive benefit of complete metamorphosis is decoupling between growth and differentiation. This facilitates the exploitation of ephemeral resources and enhances the probability of the metamorphic transition escaping developmental size thresholds. The evolution of complete metamorphosis comes at the cost of exposure to predators, parasites and pathogens during pupal life and requires specific adaptations of the immune system at this time. Moreover, metamorphosis poses a challenge for the maintenance of symbionts and the gut microbiota, although it may also offer the benefit of allowing an extensive change in microbiota between the larval and adult stages. The regulation of metamorphosis by two main players, ecdysone and juvenile hormone, and the related signalling cascades are now relatively well understood. The mechanics of metamorphosis have recently been studied in detail because of the advent of micro-CT and research into the role of cell death in remodelling tissues and organs. We support the argument that the adult stage must necessarily have preceded the larval form of the insect. We do not resolve the still contentious question of whether the larva of insects in general originated through the modification of existing preadult forms or through heterochrony as a modified embryonic stage (pronymph), nor whether the holometabolous pupa arose as a modified hemimetabolous final stage larva. This article is part of the theme issue 'The evolution of complete metamorphosis'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20190063
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences
Issue number1783
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2019


  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Insecta/growth & development
  • Metamorphosis, Biological


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