Convergent evolution across the Australian continent: ecotype diversification drives morphological convergence in two distantly related clades of Australian frogs

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Abstract

Animals from different clades but subject to similar environments often evolve similar body shapes and physiological adaptations due to convergent evolution, but this has been rarely tested at the transcontinental level and across entire classes of animal. Australia's biome diversity, isolation and aridification history provide excellent opportunities for comparative analyses on broad-scale macroevolutionary patterns. We collected morphological and environmental data on eighty-four (98%) Australian hylid frog species and categorized them into ecotypes. Using a phylogenetic framework, we tested the hypothesis that frogs from the same ecotype display similar body shape patterns: (i) across all the Australian hylids, and (ii) through comparison with a similar previous study on 127 (97%) Australian myobatrachid species. Body size and shape variation did not follow a strong phylogenetic pattern and was not tightly correlated with environment, but there was a stronger association between morphotype and ecotype. Both arboreal and aquatic frogs had long limbs, whereas limbs of fossorial species were shorter. Other terrestrial species were convergent on the more typical frog body shape. We quantified the strength of morphological convergence at two levels: (i) between fossorial myobatrachid and hylid frogs, and (ii) in each ecomorph within the hylids. We found strong convergence within ecotypes, especially in fossorial species. Ecotypes were also reflected in physiological adaptations: both arboreal and cocooned fossorial frogs tend to have higher rates of evaporative water loss. Our results illustrate how adaptation to different ecological niches plays a crucial role in morphological evolution, boosting phenotypic diversity within a clade. Despite phylogenetic conservatism, morphological adaptation to repeatedly emerging new environments can erase the signature of ancestral morphotypes, resulting in phenotypic diversification and convergence both within and between diverse clades.

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