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Distributed processing through ad hoc and sensor networks is having a major impact on scale and applications of computing. The creation of new cyber-physical services based on wireless sensor devices relies heavily on how well communication protocols can be adapted and optimized to meet quality constraints under limited energy resources. The IEEE 802.15.4 medium access control protocol for wireless sensor networks can support energy efficient, reliable, and timely packet transmission by a parallel and distributed tuning of the medium access control parameters. Such a tuning is difficult, because simple and accurate models of the influence of these parameters on the probability of successful packet transmission, packet delay, and energy consumption are not available. Moreover, it is not clear how to adapt the parameters to the changes of the network and traffic regimes by algorithms that can run on resource-constrained devices. In this paper, a Markov chain is proposed to model these relations by simple expressions without giving up the accuracy. In contrast to previous work, the presence of limited number of retransmissions, acknowledgments, unsaturated traffic, packet size, and packet copying delay due to hardware limitations is accounted for. The model is then used to derive a distributed adaptive algorithm for minimizing the power consumption while guaranteeing a given successful packet reception probability and delay constraints in the packet transmission. The algorithm does not require any modification of the IEEE 802.15.4 medium access control and can be easily implemented on network devices. The algorithm has been experimentally implemented and evaluated on a testbed with off-the-shelf wireless sensor devices. Experimental results show that the analysis is accurate, that the proposed algorithm satisfies reliability and delay constraints, and that the approach reduces the energy consumption of the network under both stationary and transient conditions. Specif- cally, even if the number of devices and traffic configuration change sharply, the proposed parallel and distributed algorithm allows the system to operate close to its optimal state by estimating the busy channel and channel access probabilities. Furthermore, results indicate that the protocol reacts promptly to errors in the estimation of the number of devices and in the traffic load that can appear due to device mobility. It is also shown that the effect of imperfect channel and carrier sensing on system performance heavily depends on the traffic load and limited range of the protocol parameters.