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Keywords:

  • Morphological disparity;
  • morphospace;
  • evolutionary radiation;
  • ecomorphology;
  • theoretical morphology

Abstract:  The distribution of organic forms is clumpy at any scale from populations to the highest taxonomic categories, and whether considered within clades or within ecosystems. The fossil record provides little support for expectations that the morphological gaps between species or groups of species have increased through time as it might if the gaps were created by extinction of a more homogeneous distribution of morphologies. As the quantitative assessments of morphology have replaced counts of higher taxa as a metric of morphological disparity, numerous studies have demonstrated the rapid construction of morphospace early in evolutionary radiations, and have emphasized the difference between taxonomic measures of morphological diversity and quantitative assessments of disparity. Other studies have evaluated changing patterns of disparity across mass extinctions, ecomorphological patterns and the patterns of convergence within ecological communities, while the development of theoretical morphology has greatly aided efforts to understand why some forms do not occur. A parallel, and until recently, largely separate research effort in evolutionary developmental biology has established that the developmental toolkit underlying the remarkable breadth of metazoan form is largely identical among Bilateria, and many components are shared among all metazoa. Underlying this concern with disparity is a question about temporal variation in the production of morphological innovations, a debate over the relative significance of the generation of new morphologies vs. differential probabilities of their successful introduction, and the relative importance of constraint, convergence and contingency in the evolution of form.