Morphological and ecological convergence in two natricine snakes
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Similar morphologies between species may be due to shared ancestry or convergent evolution. Understanding instances of morphological and ecological convergence is central to evolutionary ecology because they help us understand the fit between organism and environment. Two species of stream-dwelling natricine snakes, Thamnophis rufipunctatus and Nerodia harteri present a model system for studying ecological and morphological convergence and adaptation. The species are allopatric and both live in shallow riffles in streams and forage visually for fish. We studied morphological similarity, trait evolution and functional significance of ecologically relevant traits in these and related species, and used mitochondrial DNA sequences for the ND4 gene to estimate their phylogenetic relationships. Character mapping of head length and head width supported the hypothesis of independent evolution of head shape in T. rufipunctatus and N. harteri. The elongate snout is a derived trait in these two taxa that is associated with reduced hydrodynamic drag on the snakes' heads when in a swift current, compared to other species with the ancestral blunt snout. We hypothesize that lower hydrodynamic drag facilitates prey capture success in these species that are known to forage by holding their position in currents and striking at fish prey. The elongate snout morphology has also resulted in a diminished binocular vision field in these snakes, contrary to the hypothesis that visually orientated snakes should exhibit relatively greater binocular vision. Convergent evolution of the long snout and reduced hydrodynamic drag in T. rufipunctatus and N. harteri are consistent with the hypothesis that the long snout is an adaptation to foraging in a swift current. 2005 The Linnean Society of London.