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Evolutionary consequences of Cenozoic climate change on African lacertid lizards (Squamata: Lacertidae)


The evolutionary diversification of many terrestrial vertebrate groups is strongly linked to climatic events in the Cenozoic, the period from 65 Million years ago to today when modern animals first appeared. I investigated the effects of Cenozoic climate change on the taxonomic and morphological diversification of the Old World lizard family Lacertidae, with particular emphasis on the African radiation. African lacertids exhibit an unusual pattern of diversification, in which their highest species richness occurs in deserts north and south of the equator, despite being spread throughout the continent. This disparity is particularly surprising given that desert lacertids are thought to be evolutionarily younger than their mesic-dwelling relatives, suggesting increased diversification rates in arid habitats. To identify the evolutionary factors underlying this pattern, I use a combination of phylogenetic, morphological and ecological techniques. In Chapter 1, I apply Bayesian methods and fossil-based calibrations to molecular sequence data to construct a time-calibrated phylogeny for Lacertidae. I estimate that the family arose in the early Cenozoic, with the majority of their African radiation occurring in the Eocene and Oligocene. In Chapter 2, I describe changes in lacertid body shape across biomes and substrates, and find widespread morphological convergence in similar habitat types. I suggest that in addition to foraging demands, fluctuating and extreme climatic conditions, largely driven by precipitation and temperature, contribute to morphological convergence across independent arid-dwelling clades. Finally, I test if ancestral transitions in ecology, morphology, and rates of diversification temporally coincide with paleoclimatic events in the Cenozoic. I use High Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography to characterize changes in the skull related to life in arid habitats, and apply maximum likelihood methods to test if the origins of those traits temporally coincide with significant shifts in habitat, diversification rates and climatic changes. My results show that African lacertids experienced three major peaks in diversification, accompanied by the evolution of suites of arid-adapted morphological traits. These changes coincide with climatic shifts in Africa, including the transition from closed forests to open grasslands and savanna in the late Oligocene, prior to the peak temperatures of the mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum, and following the formation of the Benguela current leading to hyper-aridity in southern Africa. I conclude that deserts are important centers for reptile evolution, but that expected changes in climate due to global warming may outpace the ability of arid-dwelling species to adapt and persist in the future.

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