Does morphological convergence imply functional similarity? A test using the evolution of quadrupedalism in ornithischian dinosaurs

Susannah C. R. Maidment, Paul M. Barrett


Convergent morphologies are thought to indicate functional similarity, arising because of a limited number of evolutionary or developmental pathways. Extant taxa displaying convergent morphologies are used as analogues to assess function in extinct taxa with similar characteristics. However, functional studies of extant taxa have shown that functional similarity can arise from differing morphologies, calling into question the paradigm that form and function are closely related. We test the hypothesis that convergent skeletal morphology indicates functional similarity in the fossil record using ornithischian dinosaurs. The rare transition from bipedality to quadrupedality occurred at least three times independently in this clade, resulting in a suite of convergent osteological characteristics. We use homology rather than analogy to provide an independent line of evidence about function, reconstructing soft tissues using the extant phylogenetic bracket and applying biomechanical concepts to produce qualitative assessments of muscle leverage. We also optimize character changes to investigate the sequence of character acquisition. Different lineages of quadrupedal ornithischian dinosaur stood and walked differently from each other, falsifying the hypothesis that osteological convergence indicates functional similarity. The acquisition of features correlated with quadrupedalism generally occurs in the same order in each clade, suggesting underlying developmental mechanisms that act as evolutionary constraints.

  • Received May 8, 2012.
  • Accepted May 28, 2012.
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