Sustained high rates of morphological evolution during the rise of tetrapods

Tiago R. Simões, Stephanie E. Pierce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The fish-to-tetrapod transition is one of the most iconic events in vertebrate evolution, yet fundamental questions regarding the dynamics of this transition remain unresolved. Here, we use advances in Bayesian morphological clock modelling to reveal the evolutionary dynamics of early tetrapodomorphs (tetrapods and their closest fish relatives). We show that combining osteological and ichnological calibration data results in major shifts on the time of origin of all major groups of tetrapodomorphs (up to 25 million years) and that low rates of net diversification, not fossilization, explain long ghost lineages in the early tetrapodomorph fossil record. Further, our findings reveal extremely low rates of morphological change for most early tetrapodomorphs, indicating widespread stabilizing selection upon their ‘fish’ morphotype. This pattern was broken only by elpistostegalians (including early tetrapods), which underwent sustained high rates of morphological evolution for ~30 Myr during the deployment of the tetrapod body plan.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1403-1414
Number of pages12
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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