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Interactions between locomotion, feeding, and bodily elongation during the evolution of snakes

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Information from lizard lineages that have evolved a highly elongate (snake-like) body form may clarify the selective forces important in the early evolution of snakes. Lizards have evolved bodily elongation via two distinct routes: as an adaptation to burrowing underground or to rapid locomotion above ground. These two routes involve diametrically opposite modifications to the body plan. Burrowing lizards have elongate trunks, small heads, short tails, and relatively constant body widths, whereas surface-active taxa typically have shorter trunks, wider heads, longer tails, and more variable body widths. Snakes resemble burrowing rather than surface-active (or aquatic) lizards in these respects, suggesting that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards. The trunk elongation of burrowing lizards increases the volume of the alimentary tract, so that an ability to ingest large meals (albeit consisting of small individual prey items) was present in the earliest snakes. Subsequent shifts to ingestion of wide-bodied prey came later, after selection dismantled other gape-constraining morphological attributes, some of which may also have arisen as adaptations to burrowing through hard soil (e.g. relatively small heads, rigid skulls). Adaptations of snake skulls to facilitate ingestion of large prey have evolved to compensate for the reduction of relative head size accompanying bodily elongation; relative to predator body mass, maximum sizes of prey taken by snakes may not be much larger than those of many lizards. This adaptive scenario suggests novel functional links between traits, and a series of testable predictions about the relationships between squamate morphology, habitat, and trophic ecology. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 95, 293–304.

Keywords: adaptation; bauplan; constraint; lizard; preadaptation; trophic

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Wildlife Conservation and Management, School of Natural Resources, 104 Biosciences East, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA

Publication date: October 1, 2008


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