How do lizard niches conserve, diverge or converge? Further exploration of saurian evolutionary ecology

BMC Ecol Evol. 2021 Jul 30;21(1):149. doi: 10.1186/s12862-021-01877-8.


Background: Environmental conditions on Earth are repeated in non-random patterns that often coincide with species from different regions and time periods having consistent combinations of morphological, physiological and behavioral traits. Observation of repeated trait combinations among species confronting similar environmental conditions suggest that adaptive trait combinations are constrained by functional tradeoffs within or across niche dimensions. In an earlier study, we assembled a high-resolution database of functional traits for 134 lizard species to explore ecological diversification in relation to five fundamental niche dimensions. Here we expand and further examine multivariate relationships in that dataset to assess the relative influence of niche dimensions on the distribution of species in 6-dimensional niche space and how these may deviate from distributions generated from null models. We then analyzed a dataset with lower functional-trait resolution for 1023 lizard species that was compiled from our dataset and a published database, representing most of the extant families and environmental conditions occupied by lizards globally. Ordinations from multivariate analysis were compared with null models to assess how ecological and historical factors have resulted in the conservation, divergence or convergence of lizard niches.

Results: Lizard species clustered within a functional niche volume influenced mostly by functional traits associated with diet, activity, and habitat/substrate. Consistent patterns of trait combinations within and among niche dimensions yielded 24 functional groups that occupied a total niche space significantly smaller than plausible spaces projected by null models. Null model tests indicated that several functional groups are strongly constrained by phylogeny, such as nocturnality in the Gekkota and the secondarily acquired sit-and-wait foraging strategy in Iguania. Most of the widely distributed and species-rich families contained multiple functional groups thereby contributing to high incidence of niche convergence.

Conclusions: Comparison of empirical patterns with those generated by null models suggests that ecological filters promote limited sets of trait combinations, especially where similar conditions occur, reflecting both niche convergence and conservatism. Widespread patterns of niche convergence following ancestral niche diversification support the idea that lizard niches are defined by trait-function relationships and interactions with environment that are, to some degree, predictable and independent of phylogeny.

Keywords: Adaptive divergence; Evolutionary convergence; Functional group; Periodic table of niches; Phylogenetic niche conservatism; Sauria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Ecosystem
  • Humans
  • Lizards*
  • Phenotype
  • Phylogeny