• caudata;
  • prey capture;
  • exaptation;
  • constraint;
  • suction feeding;
  • tongue protraction

Plethodontid salamanders capture prey with enhanced tongue protraction relative to other salamander taxa, yet metamorphosing plethodontids are hypothesized to be constrained relative to direct-developing plethodontids in their degree of tongue evolution (protraction length and velocity) by the presence of a larval stage in development. In this biphasic life history the hyobranchial apparatus serves the conflicting functions of larval suction feeding and adult tongue protraction. The deletion of the larval stage removes one of the conflicting functions and has thus permitted direct-developing plethodontids to circumvent this constraint and evolve extremely long tongues, which in some species can be projected to 80% of body length. To evaluate this constraint hypothesis and explore taxonomic diversity of feeding behaviours, we studied feeding in larvae, adults and metamorphosing individuals of seven species of metamorphosing plethodontids from the basal taxa Desmognathinae and Hemidactyliini using direct observations, high-speed videography and kinematic analysis. We found that larval plethodontids suction feed, but feeding is suspended entirely during metamorphosis, and aquatic adults do not suction feed. Adults have exapted the terrestrial modes of tongue and jaw prehension for aquatic prey capture. These findings substantiate the premise that suction feeding and tongue protraction are conflicting functions, and thus our results support the constraint hypothesis. Plethodontid adults have evolved their extreme tongue protraction ability at the expense of adult suction feeding. The rapid metamorphosis that characterizes plethodontids may be an adaptation that minimizes the non-feeding period imposed by the evolution of derived tongue protraction in adults. © 2002 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2002, 134, 375–400.