Maternal stress can prenatally influence offspring phenotypes and there are an increasing number of ecological studies that are bringing to bear biomedical findings to natural systems. This is resulting in a shift from the perspective that maternal stress is unanimously costly, to one in which maternal stress may be beneficial to offspring. However, this adaptive perspective is in its infancy with much progress to still be made in understanding the role of maternal stress in natural systems. Our aim is to emphasize the importance of the ecological and evolutionary context within which adaptive hypotheses of maternal stress can be evaluated. We present five primary research areas where we think future research can make substantial progress: (1) understanding maternal and offspring control mechanisms that modulate exposure between maternal stress and subsequent offspring phenotype response; (2) understanding the dynamic nature of the interaction between mothers and their environment; (3) integrating offspring phenotypic responses and measuring both maternal and offspring fitness outcomes under real-life (either free-living or semi-natural) conditions; (4) empirically testing these fitness outcomes across relevant spatial and temporal environmental contexts (both pre- and postnatal environments); (5) examining the role of maternal stress effects in human-altered environments-i.e., do they limit or enhance fitness. To make progress, it is critical to understand the role of maternal stress in an ecological context and to do that, we must integrate across physiology, behavior, genetics, and evolution.
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