What limits the morphological disparity of clades?

Research paper by Jack W JW Oyston, Martin M Hughes, Peter J PJ Wagner, Sylvain S Gerber, Matthew A MA Wills

Indexed on: 08 Dec '15Published on: 08 Dec '15Published in: Interface focus


The morphological disparity of species within major clades shows a variety of trajectory patterns through evolutionary time. However, there is a significant tendency for groups to reach their maximum disparity relatively early in their histories, even while their species richness or diversity is comparatively low. This pattern of early high-disparity suggests that there are internal constraints (e.g. developmental pleiotropy) or external restrictions (e.g. ecological competition) upon the variety of morphologies that can subsequently evolve. It has also been demonstrated that the rate of evolution of new character states decreases in most clades through time (character saturation), as does the rate of origination of novel bodyplans and higher taxa. Here, we tested whether there was a simple relationship between the level or rate of character state exhaustion and the shape of a clade's disparity profile: specifically, its centre of gravity (CG). In a sample of 93 extinct major clades, most showed some degree of exhaustion, but all continued to evolve new states up until their extinction. Projection of states/steps curves suggested that clades realized an average of 60% of their inferred maximum numbers of states. Despite a weak but significant correlation between overall levels of homoplasy and the CG of clade disparity profiles, there were no significant relationships between any of our indices of exhaustion curve shape and the clade disparity CG. Clades showing early high-disparity were no more likely to have early character saturation than those with maximum disparity late in their evolution.