Fischer, Valentin, MacLaren, Jamie A., Soul, Laura C., Bennion, Rebecca F., Druckenmiller, Patrick S., and Benson, Roger B. J. 2020. "The macroevolutionary landscape of short-necked plesiosaurians." Scientific Reports 10 (1):16434-16434. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-73413-5
Throughout their evolution, tetrapods have repeatedly colonised a series of ecological niches in marine ecosystems, producing textbook examples of convergent evolution. However, this evolutionary phenomenon has typically been assessed qualitatively and in broad-brush frameworks that imply simplistic macroevolutionary landscapes. We establish a protocol to visualize the density of trait space occupancy and thoroughly test for the existence of macroevolutionary landscapes. We apply this protocol to a new phenotypic dataset describing the morphology of short-necked plesiosaurians, a major component of the Mesozoic marine food webs (ca. 201 to 66 Mya). Plesiosaurians evolved this body plan multiple times during their 135-million-year history, making them an ideal test case for the existence of macroevolutionary landscapes. We find ample evidence for a bimodal craniodental macroevolutionary landscape separating latirostrines from longirostrine taxa, providing the first phylogenetically-explicit quantitative assessment of trophic diversity in extinct marine reptiles. This bimodal pattern was established as early as the Middle Jurassic and was maintained in evolutionary patterns of short-necked plesiosaurians until a Late Cretaceous (Turonian) collapse to a unimodal landscape comprising longirostrine forms with novel morphologies. This study highlights the potential of severe environmental perturbations to profoundly alter the macroevolutionary dynamics of animals occupying the top of food chains.