Evolutionary changes in developmental timing and rates (heterochrony) are a source of morphological variation. Here we explore a central issue in heterochronic analysis: are the alterations in developmental timing and rates the only factor underlying morphological heterochrony? Tarsometatarsal growth through endochondral ossification in Ardeidae evolution has been taken as a case study. Evolutionary changes in bone growth rate (morphological heterochrony) might be either (a) the result of alterations in the mitotic frequency of epiphyseal chondrocytes (process-heterochrony hypothesis), or (b) the outcome of alterations in the number of proliferating cells or in the size of hypertrophic chondrocytes (structural hypothesis). No correlation was found between tarsometatarsal growth rates and the frequency of cell division. However, bone growth rates were significantly correlated with the number of proliferating cells. These results support the structural hypothesis: morphological acceleration and deceleration are the outcome of evolutionary changes in one structural variable, the number of proliferating cells.