Evolution of diet across the animal tree of life

Cristian Román-Palacios, Joshua P. Scholl, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

28 Scopus citations


What an animal eats is a fundamental aspect of its biology, but the evolution of diet has not been studied across animal phylogeny. Here, we performed a large-scale phylogenetic analysis to address three unresolved questions about the evolution of animal diets. (i) Are diets conserved across animal phylogeny? (ii) Does diet influence rates of species proliferation (diversification) among animal phyla? (iii) What was the ancestral diet of animals and major animal clades? We analyzed diet data for 1087 taxa, proportionally sampled among animal phyla based on the relative species richness of phyla. Our survey suggests that across animals, carnivory is most common (∼63%), herbivory less common (∼32%), and omnivory relatively rare (∼3%). Despite considerable controversy over whether ecological traits are conserved or labile, we found strong conservatism in diet over extraordinarily deep timescales. We found that diet is unrelated to rates of species diversification across animal phyla, contrasting with previous studies showing that herbivory increased diversification within some important groups (e.g., crustaceans, insects, and mammals). Finally, we estimated that the ancestor of all animals was most likely carnivorous, as were many major phyla (e.g., arthropods, molluscs, and chordates). Remarkably, our results suggest that many carnivorous species living today may have maintained this diet through a continuous series of carnivorous ancestors for >800 million years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-347
Number of pages9
JournalEvolution Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Animal
  • diet
  • diversification
  • evolution
  • niche conservatism
  • phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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