Why does a trait evolve multiple times within a clade? Repeated evolution of snakelike body form in squamate reptiles

John J. Wiens, Matthew C. Brandley, Tod W. Reeder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

308 Scopus citations


Why does a trait evolve repeatedly within a clade? When examining the evolution of a trait, evolutionary biologists typically focus on the selective advantages it may confer and the genetic and developmental mechanisms that allow it to vary. Although these factors may be necessary to explain why a trait evolves in a particular instance, they may not be sufficient to explain phylogenetic patterns of repeated evolution or conservatism. Instead, other factors may also be important, such as biogeography and competitive interactions. In squamate reptiles (lizards and snakes) a dramatic transition in body form has occurred repeatedly, from a fully limbed, lizardlike body form to a limb-reduced, elongate, snakelike body form. We analyze this trait in a phylogenetic and biogeographic context to address why this transition occurred so frequently. We included 261 species for which morphometric data and molecular phylogenetic information were available. Among the included species, snakelike body form has evolved about 25 times. Most lineages of snakelike squamates belong to one of two "ecomorphs," either short-tailed burrowers or long-tailed surface dwellers. The repeated origins of snakelike squamates appear to be associated with the in situ evolution of these two ecomorphs on different continental regions (including multiple origins of the burrowing morph within most continents), with very little dispersal of most limb-reduced lineages between continental regions. Overall, the number of repeated origins of snakelike morphology seems to depend on large-scale biogeographic patterns and community ecology, in addition to more traditional explanations (e.g., selection, development).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-141
Number of pages19
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2006


  • Biogeography
  • Body form
  • Character evolution
  • Community ecology
  • Homoplasy
  • Macroevolution
  • Phylogeny
  • Reptiles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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