Convergence in trophic morphology and feeding performance among piscivorous natricine snakes

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Abstract

Piscivory has independently evolved numerous times amongst snakes, and therefore these animals provide a powerful opportunity to test for convergent evolution in a vertebrate feeding system. In this study, we integrate performance trials with comparative methods to test the hypothesis that piscivory drives convergence in trophic morphology and feeding performance among natricine snakes. Within and across species, increasing the relative length of the quadrate bone in the skull is positively and strongly linked to a reduction in the time needed to swallow large fish prey. Thus, our feeding experiments suggest that a longer quadrate bone enables snakes to better conform their head shape to the shape of the prey during swallowing. Ancestral diet reconstructions and phylogenetically corrected multiple regression analyses further reveal that evolutionary increases in piscivory are coupled to the evolution of relatively longer quadrates, and hence improved feeding performance on fish prey in these animals. The exploitation of similar dietary niches drives the evolution of convergent trophic morphologies and feeding performances in natricine snakes.

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