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Integr Comp Biol. 2002 Apr;42(2):265-77. doi: 10.1093/icb/42.2.265.

Using functional morphology to examine the ecology and evolution of specialization.

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Center for Population Biology and Section of Evolution and Ecology, One Shields Avenue, University of California Davis, Davis, California 95616.


Researchers strive to understand what makes species different, and what allows them to survive in the time and space that they do. Many models have been advanced which encompass an array of ecological, evolutionary, mathematical, and logical principles. The goal has been to develop ecological theories that can, among other things, make specific and robust predictions about how and where organisms should live and what organisms should utilize. The role of functional morphology is often an under-appreciated parameter of these models. A more complete understanding of how anatomical features work to allow the organism to accomplish certain tasks has allowed us to revisit some of these ideas with a new perspective. We illustrate our view of this role for functional morphology in ecology by considering the issue of specialization: we attempt to align several definitions of specialization based upon shared ecological and evolutionary principles, and we summarize theoretical predictions regarding why an organism might specialize. Kinematic studies of prey capture in several types of fishes are explored with regard to the potential ecological and evolutionary consequences of specialization, most notably in the area of trade-offs. We suggest that a functional morphological perspective can increase our understanding of the ecological concepts of specialization and it consequences. The kinds of data that functional morphologists collect can help us to quantify organismal performance associated with specialization and the union of functional morphology with ecology can help us to better understand not just how but why organisms interact in the manner that they do.


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