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Open Access Research article

Evolutionary morphology of the rattlesnake style

Jesse M Meik and André Pires-daSilva*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, The University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:35  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-35

Published: 10 February 2009

Abstract

Background

The rattlesnake rattling system is an evolutionary novelty that includes anatomical, behavioral, and physiological modifications of the generalized pitviper tail. One such modification, the formation of a bony clublike style at the terminal region of the caudal vertebrae, has not previously been examined in a phylogenetic context. Here we used skeletal material, cleared and stained preparations, and radiographs of whole preserved specimens to examine interspecific variation in style morphology among 34 rattlesnake species.

Results

Evolutionary Principal Components Analysis revealed an inverse relationship between caudal segmental counts and style size, supporting the hypothesis that bone from caudal vertebral elements was reallocated to style formation during the evolution of this structure. Most of the basal rattlesnake species have small styles consisting of few compacted vertebral elements; however, early in the rattlesnake radiation there appears to have been two independent transitions to relatively large, pronged styles consisting of multiple coalesced vertebrae (once in Sistrurus catenatus, and once in Crotalus following the divergence of the Mexican long-tailed rattlesnakes). In terms of style shape, the two most divergent species, C. catalinensis and C. ericsmithi, provide insight into the possible relationship between style and rattle matrix morphology and lineage-specific evolutionary strategies for retaining rattle segments.

Conclusion

The considerable interspecific variation in rattle morphology appears to correspond to variation in the bony style. We hypothesize that style morphology evolves indirectly as an integrated module responding to adaptive evolution on matrix morphology.