The Ecology of Morphology: The Ecometrics of Locomotion and Macroenvironment in North American Snakes

  • A. Michelle Lawing
  • Jason J. Head
  • P. David Polly
Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)


Morphological traits that have a functional relationship with the environment can be used to study relationships between organisms and environments through time and across space. Dynamics of the trait-environment complex can be studied with ecometrics in individuals, in populations, and in communities. We explored how closely correlated three skeletal traits are with substrate use, and thus macrohabitat, among communities of snakes with the goal of better understanding how climate and macrovegetation might affect snake assemblages. Substrate use explained a large part of the variance in mean length-to-width ratio of vertebrae (R 2 = 0.66), PC1 of vertebral shape of a mid trunk vertebra (R 2 = 0.46), and relative tail length (R 2 = 0.71). Furthermore, mean relative tail length in snake assemblages across North America is strongly associated with ecoregions and vegetation cover (R 2 = 0.65 and 0.47, respectively). The close relationship with macrovegetation makes relative tail length a useful tool for predicting how snake assemblages will change as climates and biomes change across space or through time. This “ecometric” approach provides a medium-scale link between data collected from ecological studies over decades to data assembled from the fossil record over thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of years. We show how historical vegetation changes between the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries at five preserves in North America resulted in ecometric changes that parallel the geographic distribution of relative tail length in snake communities across North America.


Climate Community morphology Ecometrics Ecomorphology Geographic variation Paleoenvironment Serpentes Taxon-free Vertebrae 



Matthew Rowe, Laura Scheiber, and Susan Spencer at the William R. Adams Zooarchaeology Lab, Indiana University, Ron Richards at the Indiana State Museum, Eileen Westwig at the American Museum of Natural History, Phil Myers at the University of Michigan, Kevin DeQueiroz and George Zug at the Smithsonian Institution, Kevin Seymour at the Royal Ontarioi Museum, Colin McCarthy and David Gower at the Natural History Museum, London, Christopher J. Bell at the University of Texas at Austin, Heidi Price-Thomas at Queen Mary, University of London, Carl Franklin and Jonathan Campbell at University of Texas at Arlington and Bill Stanley and Harold Voris at the Field Museum of Natural History provided specimens in their care. Christopher J. Bell, Jussi Eronen, Mikael Fortelius, Robert Guralnick, Anne Hereford, Steve Le Comber, Norman Macleod, Jesse Meik, and Eric Smith discussed or assisted with parts of this work. This work was supported by Indiana University and a grant from the US National Science Foundation (EAR-0843935) and is a contribution to the Integrated Climate Change Biology programme (iCCB) of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). Early data collection was supported by a NSF Biological Informatics Postdoctoral Fellowship to JJH (NSF 98–162, 0204082).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Michelle Lawing
    • 1
  • Jason J. Head
    • 2
  • P. David Polly
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Geological Sciences and BiologyIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of Nebraska-LincolnLincolnUSA
  3. 3.Department of Geological SciencesIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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