Heterochrony, change in the rate or timing of development, is thought to be one of the main drivers of morphological evolution, and allometry, trait scaling patterns imposed by size, is traditionally thought to represent an evolutionary constraint. However, recent studies suggest that the ontogenetic allometric trajectories describing how organisms change as they grow may be labile and adaptive. Here we investigated the role of postnatal ontogenetic development in the morphological diversification of Paleoanguimorpha, the monitor lizards and allies, a clade with extreme body size disparity. We obtained linear and geometric morphometric data for more than 1,600 specimens belonging to three families and 60 species, representing ~ 72% of extant paleoanguimorph diversity. We used these data to undertake one of the largest comparative studies of ontogenetic allometry to date.
Heterochrony is likely dictating morphological divergence at shallow evolutionary scales, while changes in the magnitude and direction of ontogenetic change are found mainly between major clades. Some patterns of ontogenetic variation and morphological disparity appear to reflect ontogenetic transitions in habitat use. Generally, juveniles are more similar to each other than adults, possibly because species that differ in ecology as adults are arboreal as juveniles. The magnitude of ontogenetic change follows evolutionary models where variation is constrained around an optimal value. Conversely, the direction of ontogenetic change may follow models with different adaptive optima per habitat use category or models where interspecific interactions influence its evolution. Finally, we found that the evolutionary rates of the ontogenetic allometric trajectories are phylogenetically variable.
The attributes of ontogenetic allometric trajectories and their evolutionary rates are phylogenetically heterogeneous in Paleoanguimorpha. Both allometric constraints and ecological factors have shaped ontogeny in the group. Our study highlights the evolutionary lability and adaptability of postnatal ontogeny, and teases apart how different evolutionary shifts in ontogeny contribute to the generation of morphological diversity at different evolutionary scales.