Although discordance between taxonomic diversity and morphological disparity is common, little is known about the underlying dynamics that drive this decoupling. Early in the history of the Cambrian trilobite family Pterocephaliidae, there was an increase in taxonomic diversity and morphological diversity. As taxonomic diversity declined in the later history of the clade, range of variation stayed high and disparity continued to increase. However, per-branch rates of morphological evolution estimated from a recent phylogeny decreased with time. Neither within-trait nor within-species variation increased or decreased, suggesting that the declining rates of morphological evolution were more likely related to ecological opportunity or niche partitioning, rather than increasing intrinsic constraints. This is further supported by evidence for increased biofacies associations throughout the time period. Thus, the high disparity seen at low taxonomic diversity late in the history of this clade was due to extinction - either random or targeting mean forms - rather than increased rates of morphological evolution. This pattern also provides a scenario that could account for instances of low taxonomic diversity but high morphological disparity in modern groups.
Keywords: Biodiversity; adaptive radiation; evolutionary rates; extinction; morphological evolution.
© 2013 The Author. Journal of Evolutionary Biology © 2013 European Society For Evolutionary Biology.