Maternal effects can play an important role in a diversity of ecological and evolutionary processes such as population dynamics, phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, life-history evolution and the evolutionary response to selection. However, although maternal effects were defined by quantitative geneticists well over half a century ago, there remains some confusion over exactly what phenomena should be characterized as maternal effects and, more importantly, why it matters and how they are defined. We suggest a definition of maternal effects as the causal influence of the maternal genotype or phenotype on the offspring phenotype. This definition differs from some definitions in that it treats maternal effects as a phenomenon, not as a statistical construct. The causal link to maternal genotype or phenotype is the critical component of this definition providing the link between maternal effects and evolutionary and ecological processes. We show why phenomena such as maternal cytoplasmic inheritance and genomic imprinting are distinct genetically from and have different evolutionary consequences than true maternal effects. We also argue that one should consider cases where the maternal effect is conditional on offspring genotype as a class of maternal effects
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