Out of the dark: 350 million years of conservatism and evolution in diel activity patterns in vertebrates

Samantha R. Anderson, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Many animals are active only during a particular time (e.g., day vs. night), a partitioning that may have important consequences for species coexistence. An open question is the extent to which this diel activity niche is evolutionarily conserved or labile. Here, we analyze diel activity data across a phylogeny of 1914 tetrapod species. We find strong phylogenetic signal, showing that closely related species tend to share similar activity patterns. Ancestral reconstructions show that nocturnality was the most likely ancestral diel activity pattern for tetrapods and many major clades within it (e.g., amphibians, mammals). Remarkably, nocturnal activity appears to have been maintained continuously in some lineages for ∼350 million years. Thus, we show that traits involved in local-scale resource partitioning can be conserved over strikingly deep evolutionary time scales. We also demonstrate a potentially important (but often overlooked) metric of niche conservatism. Finally, we show that diurnal lineages appear to have faster speciation and diversification rates than nocturnal lineages, which may explain why there are presently more diurnal tetrapod species even though diurnality appears to have evolved more recently. Overall, our results may have implications for studies of community ecology, species richness, and the evolution of diet and communication systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1944-1959
Number of pages16
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • Diel activity
  • diversification
  • niche conservatism
  • phylogeny
  • species richness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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