Trait independence primes convergent trait loss

Evolution. 2018 Mar;72(3):679-687. doi: 10.1111/evo.13442. Epub 2018 Feb 16.


The repeated, independent evolution of traits (convergent evolution) is often attributed to shared environmental selection pressures. However, developmental dependencies among traits can limit the phenotypic variation available to selection and bias evolutionary outcomes. Here, we determine how changes in developmentally correlated traits may impact convergent loss of the tympanic middle ear, a highly labile trait within toads that currently lack adaptive explanation. The middle ear's lability could reflect evolutionary trade-offs with other skull features under selection, or the middle ear may evolve independently of the rest of the skull, allowing it to be modified by active or passive processes without pleiotropic trade-offs with other skull features. We compare the skulls of 55 species (39 eared, 16 earless) within the family Bufonidae, spanning six hypothesized independent middle ear transitions. We test whether shared or lineage-specific changes in skull shape distinguish earless species from eared species and whether earless skulls lack other late-forming skull bones. We find no evidence for pleiotropic trade-offs between the middle ear and other skull structures. Instead, middle ear loss in anurans may provide a rare example of developmental independence contributing to evolutionary lability of a sensory system.

Keywords: Bufonidae; Williston's law; developmental bias; pleiotropy; tympanic middle ear.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Bufonidae / anatomy & histology*
  • Ear, Middle / anatomy & histology*
  • Phenotype
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.6tn2n