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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Does evolutionary innovation in pharyngeal jaws lead to rapid lineage diversification in labrid fishes?

Michael E Alfaro1*, Chad D Brock2, Barbara L Banbury2 and Peter C Wainwright3

Author Affiliations

1 University of California, Los Angeles 621 Charles E. Young Drive South, 5217 Life Sciences Building Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA

2 Washington State University Washington State University PO Box 644236. Pullman, WA 99164-4236, USA

3 University of California, Davis, Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:255  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-255

Published: 22 October 2009



Major modifications to the pharyngeal jaw apparatus are widely regarded as a recurring evolutionary key innovation that has enabled adaptive radiation in many species-rich clades of percomorph fishes. However one of the central predictions of this hypothesis, that the acquisition of a modified pharyngeal jaw apparatus will be positively correlated with explosive lineage diversification, has never been tested. We applied comparative methods to a new time-calibrated phylogeny of labrid fishes to test whether diversification rates shifted at two scales where major pharyngeal jaw innovations have evolved: across all of Labridae and within the subclade of parrotfishes.


Diversification patterns within early labrids did not reflect rapid initial radiation. Much of modern labrid diversity stems from two recent rapid diversification events; one within julidine fishes and the other with the origin of the most species-rich clade of reef-associated parrotfishes. A secondary pharyngeal jaw innovation was correlated with rapid diversification within the parrotfishes. However diversification rate shifts within parrotfishes are more strongly correlated with the evolution of extreme dichromatism than with pharyngeal jaw modifications.


The temporal lag between pharyngeal jaw modifications and changes in diversification rates casts doubt on the key innovation hypothesis as a simple explanation for much of the richness seen in labrids and scarines. Although the possession of a secondarily modified PJA was correlated with increased diversification rates, this pattern is better explained by the evolution of extreme dichromatism (and other social and behavioral characters relating to sexual selection) within Scarus and Chlorurus. The PJA-innovation hypothesis also fails to explain the most dominant aspect of labrid lineage diversification, the radiation of the julidines. We suggest that pharyngeal jaws might have played a more important role in enabling morphological evolution of the feeding apparatus in labrids and scarines rather than in accelerating lineage diversification.