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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Nov 30;101(48):16819-24. Epub 2004 Nov 18.

Recurrent evolution of herbivory in small, cold-climate lizards: breaking the ecophysiological rules of reptilian herbivory.

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  • 1Department of Biology, California State University, Northridge, CA 91330-8303, USA.


Herbivory has evolved in many groups of vertebrates, but it is rare among both extinct and extant nonavian reptiles. Among squamate reptiles, (lizards, snakes, and their relatives), <2% of the >7,800 species are considered to be herbivorous, and herbivory is restricted to lizards. Here, we show that within a group of South American lizards (Liolaemidae, approximately 170 species), herbivory has evolved more frequently than in all other squamates combined and at a rate estimated to be >65 times faster. Furthermore, in contrast to other herbivorous lizards and to existing theory, most herbivorous liolaemids are small bodied and live in cool climates. Herbivory is generally thought to evolve only in reptile species that are large bodied, live in warm climates, and maintain high body temperatures. These three well known "rules" of herbivory are considered to form the bases of physiological constraints that explain the paucity of herbivorous reptile species. We suggest that the recurrent and paradoxical evolution of herbivory in liolaemids is explained by a combination of environmental conditions (promoting independent origins of herbivory in isolated cool-climate regions), ecophysiological constraints (requiring small body size in cool climates, yet high body temperatures for herbivores), and phylogenetic history. More generally, our study demonstrates how integrating information from ecophysiology and phylogeny can help to explain macroevolutionary trends.

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