Appendicular skeletal morphology of North American Martes reflect independent modes of evolution in conjunction with Pleistocene glacial cycles

Leigha M. Lynch, Ryan Felice, Haley D. O'Brien

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Pleistocene glacial cycles are thought to have driven ecological niche shifts, including novel niche formation. North American pine martens, Martes americana and M. caurina, are exemplar taxa thought to have diverged molecularly and morphologically during Pleistocene glaciation. Previous research found correlations between Martes limb morphology with biome and climate, suggesting that appendicular evolution may have occurred via adaptation to selective pressures imposed by novel and shifting habitats. Such variation can also be achieved through non-adaptive means such as genetic drift. Here, we evaluate whether regional genetic differences reflect limb morphology differences among populations of M. americana and M. caurina by analyzing evolutionary tempo and mode of six limb elements. Our comparative phylogenetic models indicate that genetic structure predicts limb shape better than size. Marten limb size has low phylogenetic signal, and the best supported model of evolution is punctuational (kappa), with morphological and genetic divergence occurring simultaneously. Disparity through time analysis suggests that the tempo of limb evolution in Martes tracks Pleistocene glacial cycles, such that limb size may be responding to shifting climates rather than population genetic structure. Contrarily, we find that limb shape is strongly tied to genetic relationships, with high phylogenetic signal and a lambda mode of evolution. Overall, this pattern of limb size and shape variation may be the result of geographic isolation during Pleistocene glacial advance, while declines in disparity suggest hybridization during interglacial periods. Future inclusion of extinct populations of Martes, which were more morphologically and ecologically diverse, may further clarify Martes phenotypic evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1439-1462
Number of pages24
JournalAnatomical Record
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • limb shape
  • limb size
  • mustelid
  • phylogenetic comparative methods


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