Is dietary niche breadth linked to morphology and performance in Sandveld lizards Nucras (Sauria: Lacertidae)?



The functional characteristics of prey items (such as hardness and evasiveness) have been linked with cranial morphology and performance in vertebrates. In lizards particularly, species with more robust crania generally feed on harder prey items and possess a greater bite force, whereas those that prey on evasive prey typically have longer snouts. However, the link between dietary niche breadth, morphology, and performance has not been explicitly investigated in lizards. The southern African genus Nucras was used to investigate this link because the species exhibit differing niche breadth values and dietary compositions. A phylogeny for the genus was established using mitochondrial and nuclear markers, and morphological clusters were identified. Dietary data of five Nucras species, as reported previously, were used in correlation analyses between cranial shape (quantified using geometric morphometrics) and dietary niche breadth, and the proportion of hard prey taken and bite force capacity. Dietary niche breadth and the proportion of hard prey eaten were significantly related to cranial shape, although not once phylogeny was accounted for using a phylogenetic generalized least squares regression. The proportion of evasive prey eaten was a significant predictor of forelimb length when phylogeny was taken into account. We conclude that, in Nucras, the percentage of evasive prey taken co-evolves with forelimb morphology, and dietary niche breadth co-evolves with cranial shape. However, although head width is correlated with the proportion of hard prey eaten, this appears to be the result of shared ancestry rather than adaptive evolution. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 110, 674–688.