Background: How particular changes in functional morphology can repeatedly promote ecological diversification is an active area of evolutionary investigation. The African rift-lake cichlids offer a calibrated time series of the most dramatic adaptive radiations of vertebrate trophic morphology yet described, and the replicate nature of these events provides a unique opportunity to test whether common changes in functional morphology have repeatedly facilitated their ecological success.
Methodology/principal findings: Specimens from 87 genera of cichlid fishes endemic to Lakes Tanganyka, Malawi and Victoria were dissected in order to examine the functional morphology of cichlid feeding. We quantified shape using geometric morphometrics and compared patterns of morphological diversity using a series of analytical tests. The primary axes of divergence were conserved among all three radiations, and the most prevalent changes involved the size of the preorbital region of the skull. Even the fishes from the youngest of these lakes (Victoria), which exhibit the lowest amount of skull shape disparity, have undergone extensive preorbital evolution relative to other craniofacial traits. Such changes have large effects on feeding biomechanics, and can promote expansion into a wide array of niches along a bentho-pelagic ecomorphological axis.
Conclusions/significance: Here we show that specific changes in trophic anatomy have evolved repeatedly in the African rift lakes, and our results suggest that simple morphological alterations that have large ecological consequences are likely to constitute critical components of adaptive radiations in functional morphology. Such shifts may precede more complex shape changes as lineages diversify into unoccupied niches. The data presented here, combined with observations of other fish lineages, suggest that the preorbital region represents an evolutionary module that can respond quickly to natural selection when fishes colonize new lakes. Characterizing the changes in cichlid trophic morphology that have contributed to their extraordinary adaptive radiations has broad evolutionary implications, and such studies are necessary for directing future investigations into the proximate mechanisms that have shaped these spectacular phenomena.