Correlated evolution between herbivory and gastrointestinal tract in a prolific lizard adaptive radiation
Radiations of ectothermic vertebrates across cold climates depend on the coordinated evolution of multiple traits that compensate for the constraints imposed by limited and fluctuating resources, such as temperature, food and oxygen. One of nature’s most prolific such radiations, Liolaemus lizards, has diversified across the extreme cold climates of the Andes and Patagonia. Remarkably, the prevailing patterns of reptile herbivory are opposed by Liolaemus which, in contrast with lizards generally, have repeatedly evolved plant consumption across small-bodied species from cold climates. Herbivory is hypothesized to depend on the evolution of multiple traits that maximize absorption of nutrients from an intrinsically poor-quality diet, such as increases in gastrointestinal tract size and increases in the density of nematodes in the intestine that may assist with plant digestion. Here, a comparative phylogenetic approach across Liolaemus species is implemented to test these hypotheses, which have only been investigated nonphylogenetically. Results reveal that intestine length increases consistently with increasing herbivory, whereas stomach size or nematode load are not associated with plant consumption. Body size plays no role in herbivory either. Consequently, this evidence places emphasis on the enlargement of the intestine to facilitate the evolution of herbivory in cold climates.