Diversification of the ruminant skull along an evolutionary line of least resistance. Sci Adv. 2023;9(9):eade8929
JGM, Humans, Animals, Skull, Head, Ruminants, Family
Sci Adv. 2023;9(9):eade8929
Clarifying how microevolutionary processes scale to macroevolutionary patterns is a fundamental goal in evolutionary biology, but these analyses, requiring comparative datasets of population-level variation, are limited. By analyzing a previously published dataset of 2859 ruminant crania, we find that variation within and between ruminant species is biased by a highly conserved mammalian-wide allometric pattern, CREA (craniofacial evolutionary allometry), where larger species have proportionally longer faces. Species with higher morphological integration and species more biased toward CREA have diverged farther from their ancestors, and Ruminantia as a clade diversified farther than expected in the direction of CREA. Our analyses indicate that CREA acts as an evolutionary "line of least resistance" and facilitates morphological diversification due to its alignment with the browser-grazer continuum. Together, our results demonstrate that constraints at the population level can produce highly directional patterns of phenotypic evolution at the macroevolutionary scale. Further research is needed to explore how CREA has been exploited in other mammalian clades.