Bite or run? Ecomorphological relationship in African agamas
Understanding the relationships between form and function can help us to understand the evolution of phenotypic diversity in different ecological contexts. Many animals display morphological and behavioural adaptations to the habitats in which they live and the resources they exploit. Whole-organism performance traits such as bite force and locomotion are ecologically relevant as they reflect the ability of an organism to include a wider diversity, different or differently sized prey, to escape from predators, or to defend territories.
Here, we investigate ecomorphological relationships between diet, morphology, bite force and locomotor performance (sprint speed and endurance) in six species of South African agamids from three habitat types (ground-dwelling, rock-dwelling, and arboreal). Diet analyses showed that ants are a major food source, alongside with active prey such as beetles, wasps and flies. Body and head size are not directly related to diet, although greater in-levers for jaw closing (positively related to bite force) are associated to an increase of hard prey in the diet. Rock-dwelling species have a relatively flatter head than other species, possibly as an adaptation for crevice use. However, even when correcting for jaw length and jaw out-lever length, rock-dwelling species bite harder than ground-dwelling species. Further, endurance capacity of these lizards is correlated with hind limb and toe lengths. Interestingly, however, we demonstrate trade-offs in performance where specialisation towards speed comes at the detriment of endurance. Arboreal species have longer hind limbs, and higher exertion capacity and mean speed. However, for a given hind limb length, they appear to be slower than the other habitat specialists. In sum, our study illustrates the role of morphology in driving functional changes and how habitat use impacts morphology and locomotor performance but not bite force.