Body size as a primary determinant of ecomorphological diversification and the evolution of mimicry in the lampropeltinine snakes (Serpentes: Colubridae)

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Evolutionary correlations between functionally related character suites are expected as a consequence of coadaptation due to physiological relationships between traits. However, significant correlations may also exist between putatively unrelated characters due to shared relationships between those traits and underlying variables, such as body size. Although such patterns are often dismissed as simple body size scaling, this presumption may overlook important evolutionary patterns of diversification. If body size is the primary determinant of potential diversity in multiple unrelated characters, the observed differentiation of species may be governed by variability in body size, and any biotic or abiotic constraints on the diversification thereof. Here, we demonstrate that traits related to both predatory specialization (gape and diet preference) and predatory avoidance (the development of Batesian mimicry) are phylogenetically correlated in the North American snake tribe Lampropeltini. This is apparently due to shared relationships between those traits and adult body size, suggesting that size is the primary determinant of ecomorphological differentiation in the lampropeltinines. Diversification in body size is apparently not linked to climatic or environmental factors, and may have been driven by interspecific interactions such as competition. Additionally, we find the presence of a ‘key zone’ for the development of both rattle- and coral snake mimicry; only small snakes feeding primarily on ectothermic prey develop mimetic colour patterns, in or near the range of venomous model species.

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