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J Evol Biol. 2017 Nov;30(11):2031-2043. doi: 10.1111/jeb.13173. Epub 2017 Sep 21.

Ecological and phylogenetic variability in the spinalis muscle of snakes.

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Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA, USA.
Department of Biological Sciences, ML006, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA.


Understanding the origin and maintenance of functionally important subordinate traits is a major goal of evolutionary physiologists and ecomorphologists. Within the confines of a limbless body plan, snakes are diverse in terms of body size and ecology, but we know little about the functional traits that underlie this diversity. We used a phylogenetically diverse group of 131 snake species to examine associations between habitat use, sidewinding locomotion and constriction behaviour with the number of body vertebrae spanned by a single segment of the spinalis muscle, with total numbers of body vertebrae used as a covariate in statistical analyses. We compared models with combinations of these predictors to determine which best fit the data among all species and for the advanced snakes only (N = 114). We used both ordinary least-squares models and phylogenetic models in which the residuals were modelled as evolving by the Ornstein-Uhlenbeck process. Snakes with greater numbers of vertebrae tended to have spinalis muscles that spanned more vertebrae. Habitat effects dominated models for analyses of all species and advanced snakes only, with the spinalis length spanning more vertebrae in arboreal species and fewer vertebrae in aquatic and burrowing species. Sidewinding specialists had shorter muscle lengths than nonspecialists. The relationship between prey constriction and spinalis length was less clear. Differences among clades were also strong when considering all species, but not for advanced snakes alone. Overall, these results suggest that muscle morphology may have played a key role in the adaptive radiation of snakes.


adaptation; comparative methods; constriction; ecomorphology; grade shifts; habitat; morphology; phylogeny; sidewinding; vertebrae

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