The ecological origins of snakes as revealed by skull evolution

26.7.2018
The ecological origin of snakes remains amongst the most controversial topics in evolution, with three competing hypotheses: fossorial; marine; or terrestrial. Here we use a geometric morphometric approach integrating ecological, phylogenetic, paleontological, and developmental data for building models of skull shape and size evolution and developmental rate changes in squamates. Our large-scale data reveal that whereas the most recent common ancestor of crown snakes had a small skull with a shape undeniably adapted for fossoriality, all snakes plus their sister group derive from a surface-terrestrial form with non-fossorial behavior, thus redirecting the debate toward an underexplored evolutionary scenario. Our comprehensive heterochrony analyses further indicate that snakes later evolved novel craniofacial specializations through global acceleration of skull development. These results highlight the importance of the interplay between natural selection and developmental processes in snake origin and diversification, leading first to invasion of a new habitat and then to subsequent ecological radiations.