Rates and patterns in the evolution of snake-like body form in squamate reptiles: Evidence for repeated re-evolution of lost digits and long-term persistence of intermediate body forms

Matthew C. Brandley, John P. Huelsenbeck, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

127 Scopus citations


An important challenge in evolutionary biology is to understand how major changes in body form arise. The dramatic transition from a lizard-like to snake-like body form in squamate reptiles offers an exciting system for such research because this change is replicated dozens of times. Here, we use morphometric data for 258 species and a time-calibrated phylogeny to explore rates and patterns of body-form evolution across squamates. We also demonstrate how time-calibrated phylogenies may be used to make inferences about the time frame over which major morphological transitions occur. Using the morphometric data, we find that the transition from lizard-like to snake-like body form involves concerted evolution of limb reduction, digit loss, and body elongation. These correlations are similar across squamate clades, despite very different ecologies and >180 million years (My) of divergence. Using the time-calibrated phylogeny and ancestral reconstructions, we find that the dramatic transition between these body forms can occur in 20 My or less, but that seemingly intermediate morphologies can also persist for tens of millions of years. Finally, although loss of digits is common, we find statistically significant support for at least six examples of the re-evolution of lost digits in the forelimb and hind limb.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2042-2064
Number of pages23
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2008
Externally publishedYes



  • Ancestral state reconstruction
  • Divergence-time estimation
  • Evolutionary rate
  • Limb reduction
  • Macroevolution
  • Morphology
  • Phylogeny
  • Squamata

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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