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Am Nat. 2003 Mar;161(3):413-21.

The evolution of body size in extant groups of North American freshwater fishes: speciation, size distributions, and Cope's rule.

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  • 1Center for Biodiversity, Illinois Natural History Survey, Champaign, Illinois 61820, USA.


Change in body size within an evolutionary lineage over time has been under investigation since the synthesis of Cope's rule, which suggested that there is a tendency for mammals to evolve larger body size. Data from the fossil record have subsequently been examined for several other taxonomic groups to determine whether they also displayed an evolutionary increase in body size. However, we are not aware of any species-level study that has investigated the evolution of body size within an extant continental group. Data acquired from the fossil record and data derived from the evolutionary relationships of extant species are not similar, with each set exhibiting both strengths and weaknesses related to inferring evolutionary patterns. Consequently, expectation that general trends exhibited in the fossil record will correspond to patterns in extant groups is not necessarily warranted. Using phylogenetic relationships of extant species, we show that five of nine families of North American freshwater fishes exhibit an evolutionary trend of decreasing body size. These trends result from the basal position of large species and the more derived position of small species within families. Such trends may be caused by the invasion of small streams and subsequent isolation and speciation. This pattern, potentially influenced by size-biased dispersal rates and the high percentage of small streams in North America, suggests a scenario that could result in the generation of the size-frequency distribution of North American freshwater fishes.

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