Diversity versus disparity and the radiation of modern cetaceans

Graham J. Slater, Samantha A. Price, Francesco Santini, Michael E. Alfaro


Modern whales are frequently described as an adaptive radiation spurred by either the evolution of various key innovations (such as baleen or echolocation) or ecological opportunity following the demise of archaic whales. Recent analyses of diversification rate shifts on molecular phylogenies raise doubts about this interpretation since they find no evidence of increased speciation rates during the early evolution of modern taxa. However, one of the central predictions of ecological adaptive radiation is rapid phenotypic diversification, and the tempo of phenotypic evolution has yet to be quantified in cetaceans. Using a time-calibrated molecular phylogeny of extant cetaceans and a morphological dataset on size, we find evidence that cetacean lineages partitioned size niches early in the evolutionary history of neocetes and that changes in cetacean size are consistent with shifts in dietary strategy. We conclude that the signature of adaptive radiations may be retained within morphological traits even after equilibrium diversity has been reached and high extinction or fluctuations in net diversification have erased any signature of an early burst of diversification in the structure of the phylogeny.


  • These authors contributed equally to this work and should be considered joint first authors.

  • Present address: Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA.

  • Received February 26, 2010.
  • Accepted April 30, 2010.
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