Vertebral number is highly evolvable in salamanders and newts (family Salamandridae) and variably associated with climatic parameters

In: Contributions to Zoology

In vertebrates, the relative proportion of the number of trunk and caudal vertebrae is an important determinant of body shape. While among amphibians frogs and toads show low variation in vertebrae numbers, in salamanders the numbers of trunk and caudal vertebrae vary widely, giving rise to phenotypes in the range from short-bodied and long-tailed to long-bodied and short-tailed. We analysed vertebral numbers in the family Salamandridae in a phylogenetic context and calculated the relationship between vertebral changes and changes in climate and other environmental parameters. A significant association was found between morphological change with precipitation and temperature. However, annual precipitation affected the two main groups of salamandrid salamanders differently, with trunk elongation in the terrestrial ‘true salamanders’ and tail elongation in the more aquatic ‘newts’. A - male biased - sexual dimorphism was only observed in Lissotriton vulgaris vulgaris in the number of trunk vertebrae and in Ommatotriton ophryticus and Lissotriton species for the number of caudal vertebrae. Our data indicated that the number of trunk and caudal vertebrae are highly evolvable traits with frequent evolutionary reversals. In some groups (e.g. Cynops, Lyciasalamandra, Neurergus and the Laotriton- Pachytriton-Paramesotriton clade) the number of trunk vertebrae is stable, while in many groups it is subject to change (e.g. Tylototriton). This latter, species-rich genus appears to be an excellent group to further test effects of the environment on body shape.

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