Getting in shape: adaptation and phylogenetic inertia in morphology of Australian anuran larvae

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The external morphology of frog larvae is predicted to vary among habitats, for a variety of functional reasons. I performed a phylogenetic comparative study to test whether correlations between habitat and the shape of the tadpole and its oral disc are adaptive in 82 species from south-eastern Australia in the families Hylidae and Myobatrachidae. Habitat distributions and phylogenetic relationships were compiled from the literature and shape was quantified using geometric morphometric analysis of published drawings. Results indicate that shape evolved towards different optima in different habitats while also showing appreciable levels of phylogenetic inertia. Within myobatrachids, evolution of terrestrial tadpoles was associated with a short and shallow head/body and a shallow tail. In aquatic species, the use of benthic microhabitats was correlated with a long shallow tail, dorsal eye position, shallow head/body and ventral mouth with robust jaw sheaths. Even traits with evidence for adaptation evolved slowly in response to habitat shifts, usually requiring ≥10 million years to evolve half-way to a new optimum. Although these findings support adaptive evolution of tadpole body form, they also highlight a strong influence of ancestral character states and indicate that phenotypes in extant species are partly maladaptive.

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