Adult frogs and tadpoles have different macroevolutionary patterns across the Australian continent

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Developmental changes through an animal’s life are generally understood to contribute to the resulting adult morphology. Possible exceptions are species with complex life cycles, where individuals pass through distinct ecological and morphological life stages during their ontogeny, ending with metamorphosis to the adult form. Antagonistic selection is expected to drive low genetic correlations between life stages, theoretically permitting stages to evolve independently. Here we describe, using Australian frog radiation, the evolutionary consequences on morphological evolution when life stages are under different selective pressures. We use morphometrics to characterize body shape of tadpoles and adults across 166 species of frog and investigate similarities in the two resulting morphological spaces (morphospaces) to test for concerted evolution across metamorphosis in trait variation during speciation. A clear pattern emerges: Australian frogs and their tadpoles are evolving independently; their markedly different morphospaces and contrasting estimated evolutionary histories of body shape diversification indicate that different processes are driving morphological diversification at each stage. Tadpole morphospace is characterized by rampant homoplasy, convergent evolution and high lineage density. By contrast, the adult morphospace shows greater phylogenetic signal, low lineage density and divergent evolution between the main clades. Our results provide insight into the macroevolutionary consequences of a biphasic life cycle.

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Fig. 1: Morphometric variables characterizing body shape in tadpoles and adult frogs.
Fig. 2: Evolutionary phylomorphospaces of tadpoles and adult frogs.


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We thank T. J. Sanger for comments on the manuscript, and E. Walsh ( for the beautiful adult frog drawings she produced for us and help with figure preparation. Funding came from the Australian Research Council DP150102403 to J.S.K.

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E.S. and J.S.K. conceived the study. E.S., M.A. and M.V.-G. collected the data. E.S. performed the analyses. E.S., J.S.K. and M.V.-G. wrote the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Emma Sherratt.

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Sherratt, E., Vidal-García, M., Anstis, M. et al. Adult frogs and tadpoles have different macroevolutionary patterns across the Australian continent. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1385–1391 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0268-6

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