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Keywords:

  • Cranial morphology;
  • geometric morphometrics;
  • Muroidea;
  • morphological integration;
  • phenotypic covariance

Mutations have the ability to produce dramatic changes to covariance structure by altering the variance of covariance-generating developmental processes. Several evolutionary mechanisms exist that may be acting interdependently to stabilize covariance structure, despite this developmental potential for variation within species. We explore covariance structure in the crania of laboratory mouse mutants exhibiting mild-to-significant developmental perturbations of the cranium, and contrast it with covariance structure in related wild muroid taxa. Phenotypic covariance structure is conserved among wild muroidea, but highly variable and mutation-dependent within the laboratory group. We show that covariance structures in natural populations of related species occupy a more restricted portion of covariance structure space than do the covariance structures resulting from single mutations of significant effect or the almost nonexistent genetic differences that separate inbred mouse strains. Our results suggest that developmental constraint is not the primary mechanism acting to stabilize covariance structure, and imply a more important role for other mechanisms.