Do different disparity proxies converge on a common signal? Insights from the cranial morphometrics and evolutionary history of Pterosauria (Diapsida: Archosauria)

C. Foth, S. L. Brusatte, R. J. Butler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Disparity, or morphological diversity, is often quantified by evolutionary biologists investigating the macroevolutionary history of clades over geological timescales. Disparity is typically quantified using proxies for morphology, such as measurements, discrete anatomical characters, or geometric morphometrics. If different proxies produce differing results, then the accurate quantification of disparity in deep time may be problematic. However, despite this, few studies have attempted to examine disparity of a single clade using multiple morphological proxies. Here, as a case study for this question, we examine the disparity of the volant Mesozoic fossil reptile clade Pterosauria, an intensively studied group that achieved substantial morphological, ecological and taxonomic diversity during their 145+ million-year evolutionary history. We characterize broadscale patterns of cranial morphological disparity for pterosaurs for the first time using landmark-based geometric morphometrics and make comparisons to calculations of pterosaur disparity based on alternative metrics. Landmark-based disparity calculations suggest that monofenestratan pterosaurs were more diverse cranially than basal non-monofenestratan pterosaurs (at least when the aberrant anurognathids are excluded), and that peak cranial disparity may have occurred in the Early Cretaceous, relatively late in pterosaur evolution. Significantly, our cranial disparity results are broadly congruent with those based on whole skeleton discrete character and limb proportion data sets, indicating that these divergent approaches document a consistent pattern of pterosaur morphological evolution. Therefore, pterosaurs provide an exemplar case demonstrating that different proxies for morphological form can converge on the same disparity signal, which is encouraging because often only one such proxy is available for extinct clades represented by fossils. Furthermore, mapping phylogeny into cranial morphospace demonstrates that pterosaur cranial morphology is significantly correlated with, and potentially constrained by, phylogenetic relationships.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)904-915
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2012


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