Heterochronic shifts mediate ecomorphological convergence in skull shape of microcephalic sea snakes

Emma Sherratt, Kate Sanders, Amy Watson, Mark Hutchinson, Michael Lee, Alessandro Palci

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Morphological variation among the viviparous sea snakes (Hydrophiinae), a clade of fully aquatic elapid snakes, includes an extreme "microcephalic" ecomorph that has a very small head atop a narrow forebody, while the hind body is much thicker (up to three times the forebody girth). Previous research has demonstrated that this morphology has evolved at least nine times as a consequence of dietary specialization on burrowing eels, and has also examined morphological changes to the vertebral column underlying this body shape. The question addressed in this study is what happens to the skull during this extreme evolutionary change? Here we use X-ray micro-computed tomography and geometric morphometric methods to characterize cranial shape variation in 30 species of sea snakes. We investigate ontogenetic and evolutionary patterns of cranial shape diversity to understand whether cranial shape is predicted by dietary specialization, and examine whether cranial shape of microcephalic species may be a result of heterochronic processes. We show that the diminutive cranial size of microcephalic species has a convergent shape that is correlated with trophic specialization to burrowing prey. Furthermore, their cranial shape is predictable for their size and very similar to that of juvenile individuals of closely related but non-microcephalic sea snakes. Our findings suggest that heterochronic changes (resulting in pedomorphosis) have driven cranial shape convergence in response to dietary specializations in sea snakes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)616-624
Number of pages9
JournalINTEGRATIVE AND COMPARATIVE BIOLOGY
Volume59
Issue number3
Early online date2019
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2019

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