Functional equivalence of morphologies enables morphological and ecological diversity

Evolution. 2007 Nov;61(11):2480-92. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2007.00210.x. Epub 2007 Aug 23.


Diversity in organismal forms among taxa is thought to reflect distinct selection pressures across environments. The central assumption underlying this expectation is that taxa experiencing similar selection have similar response to that selection. However, because selection acts on trait function, taxa similarity in selection response depends crucially on the relationship between function and morphology. Further, when a trait consists of multiple parts, changes in function in response to selection can result from modification of different parts, and adaptation to the same environment might result in functional but not morphological similarity. Here, we address the extent to which functional and morphological diversity in masticatory apparatus of soricid shrews reflects a shared ecological characteristic of their diet type. We examine the factors limiting morphological variation across shrew species by assessing the relative contribution of trait function (biomechanics of the jaw), ecology, and phylogeny to species similarity in mandibular traits. We found that species that shared diet type were functionally but not morphologically similar. The presence of multiple semi-independently varying traits enabled functional equivalence of composite foraging morphologies and resulted in variable response to selection exerted by similar diet. We show that functional equivalence of multiple morphologies enabled persistence of differences in habitat use (e.g., habitat moisture and coverage) among species that specialize on the same diet. We discuss the importance of developmental and functional integration among traits for evolutionary diversification of morphological structures that generate equivalent functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Ecosystem*
  • Mandible / anatomy & histology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Phylogeny
  • Species Specificity