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Title: Heterochronic Shifts Mediate Ecomorphological Convergence in Skull Shape of Microcephalic Sea Snakes
Abstract Morphological variation among the viviparous sea snakes (Hydrophiinae), a clade of fully aquatic elapid snakes, includes an extreme “microcephalic” ecomorph that has a very small head atop a narrow forebody, while the hind body is much thicker (up to three times the forebody girth). Previous research has demonstrated that this morphology has evolved at least nine times as a consequence of dietary specialization on burrowing eels, and has also examined morphological changes to the vertebral column underlying this body shape. The question addressed in this study is what happens to the skull during this extreme evolutionary change? Here we use X-ray micro-computed tomography and geometric morphometric methods to characterize cranial shape variation in 30 species of sea snakes. We investigate ontogenetic and evolutionary patterns of cranial shape diversity to understand whether cranial shape is predicted by dietary specialization, and examine whether cranial shape of microcephalic species may be a result of heterochronic processes. We show that the diminutive cranial size of microcephalic species has a convergent shape that is correlated with trophic specialization to burrowing prey. Furthermore, their cranial shape is predictable for their size and very similar to that of juvenile individuals of closely related but non-microcephalic sea more » snakes. Our findings suggest that heterochronic changes (resulting in pedomorphosis) have driven cranial shape convergence in response to dietary specializations in sea snakes. « less
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Integrative and Comparative Biology
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
616 to 624
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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