Are more diverse parts of the mammalian skull more labile?

Mar 1, 2016

Morphological variation is unevenly distributed within the mammalian skull; some of its parts have diversified more than others. It is commonly thought that this pattern of variation is mainly the result of the structural organization of the skull, as defined by the pattern and magnitude of trait covariation. Patterns of trait covariation can facilitate morphological diversification if they are aligned in the direction of selection, or these patterns can constrain diversification if oriented in a different direction. Within this theoretical framework, it is thought that more variable parts possess patterns of trait covariation that made them more capable of evolutionary change, that is, are more labile. However, differences in the degree of morphological variation among skull traits could arise despite variation in trait lability if, for example, some traits have evolved at a different rate and/or undergone stabilizing selection. Here, we test these hypotheses in the mammalian skull using 2D geometric morphometrics to quantify skull shape and estimating constraint, rates of evolution, and lability. Contrary to the expectations, more variable parts of the skull across mammalian species are less capable of evolutionary change than are less variable skull parts. Our results suggest that patterns of morphological variation in the skull could result from differences in rate of evolution and stabilizing selection.