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Complex macroevolutionary dynamics underly the evolution of the crocodyliform skull

Ryan N. Felice, Diego Pol, Anjali Goswami
Proc. R. Soc. B. 288: 20210919
All modern crocodyliforms (alligators, crocodiles and the gharial) are semi-aquatic generalist carnivores that are relatively similar in cranial form and function. However, this homogeneity represents just a fraction of the variation that once existed in the clade, which includes extinct herbivorous and marine forms with divergent skull structure and function. Here, we use high-dimensional three-dimensional geometric morphometrics to quantify whole-skull morphology across modern and fossil crocodyliforms to untangle the factors that shaped the macroevolutionary history and relatively low phenotypic variation of this clade through time. Evolutionary modelling demonstrates that the pace of crocodyliform cranial evolution is initially high, particularly in the extinct Notosuchia, but slows near the base of Neosuchia, with a late burst of rapid evolution in crown-group crocodiles. Surprisingly, modern crocodiles, especially Australian, southeast Asian, Indo-Pacific species, have high rates of evolution, despite exhibiting low variation. Thus, extant lineages are not in evolutionary stasis but rather have rapidly fluctuated within a limited region of morphospace, resulting in significant convergence. The structures related to jaw closing and bite force production (e.g. pterygoid flange and quadrate) are highly variable, reinforcing the importance of function in driving phenotypic variation. Together, these findings illustrate that the apparent conservativeness of crocodyliform skulls betrays unappreciated complexity in their macroevolutionary dynamics.