On the relationship between the macroevolutionary trajectories of morphological integration and morphological disparity

S. Gerber

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How does the organization of phenotypes relate to their propensity to vary? How do evolutionary changes in this organization affect large-scale phenotypic evolution? Over the last decade, studies of morphological integration and modularity have renewed our understanding of the organizational and variational properties of complex phenotypes. Much effort has been made to unravel the connections among the genetic, developmental, and functional contexts leading to differential integration among morphological traits and individuation of variational modules. Yet, their macroevolutionary consequences on the dynamics of morphological disparity-the large-scale variety of organismal designs-are still largely unknown. Here, I investigate the relationship between morphological integration and morphological disparity throughout the entire evolutionary history of crinoids (echinoderms). Quantitative analyses of interspecific patterns of variation and covariation among characters describing the stem, cup, arm, and tegmen of the crinoid body do not show any significant concordance between the temporal trajectories of disparity and overall integration. Nevertheless, the results reveal marked differences in the patterns of integration for Palaeozoic and post-Palaeozoic crinoids. Post-Palaeozoic crinoids have a higher degree of integration and occupy a different region of the space of integration patterns, corresponding to more heterogeneously structured matrices of correlation among traits. Particularly, increased covariation is observed between subsets of characters from the dorsal cup and from the arms. These analyses show that morphological disparity is not dependent on the overall degree of evolutionary integration but rather on the way integration is distributed among traits. Hence, temporal changes in disparity dynamics are likely constrained by reorganizations of the modularity of the crinoid morphology and not by changes in the variability of individual traits. The differences in integration patterns explain the more stereotyped morphologies of post-Palaeozoic crinoids and, from a broader macroevolutionary perspective, call for a greater attention to the distributional heterogeneities of constraints in morphospace.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere63913
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2013


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