Rates and patterns in the evolution of snake-like body form in squamate reptiles: evidence for repeated re-evolution of lost digits and long-term persistence of intermediate body forms

Evolution. 2008 Aug;62(8):2042-64. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00430.x. Epub 2008 May 27.


An important challenge in evolutionary biology is to understand how major changes in body form arise. The dramatic transition from a lizard-like to snake-like body form in squamate reptiles offers an exciting system for such research because this change is replicated dozens of times. Here, we use morphometric data for 258 species and a time-calibrated phylogeny to explore rates and patterns of body-form evolution across squamates. We also demonstrate how time-calibrated phylogenies may be used to make inferences about the time frame over which major morphological transitions occur. Using the morphometric data, we find that the transition from lizard-like to snake-like body form involves concerted evolution of limb reduction, digit loss, and body elongation. These correlations are similar across squamate clades, despite very different ecologies and >180 million years (My) of divergence. Using the time-calibrated phylogeny and ancestral reconstructions, we find that the dramatic transition between these body forms can occur in 20 My or less, but that seemingly intermediate morphologies can also persist for tens of millions of years. Finally, although loss of digits is common, we find statistically significant support for at least six examples of the re-evolution of lost digits in the forelimb and hind limb.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Patterning
  • Calibration
  • Ecology
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Extremities
  • Genetic Speciation
  • Models, Genetic
  • Models, Statistical
  • Phylogeny
  • Regression Analysis
  • Reptiles / genetics*
  • Reptiles / physiology*
  • Time Factors