The Evolution of Pharyngognathy: A Phylogenetic and Functional Appraisal of the Pharyngeal Jaw Key Innovation in Labroid Fishes and beyond

Peter C. Wainwright, W. Leo Smith, Samantha A. Price, Kevin L. Tang, John S. Sparks, Lara Ferry, Kristen L. Kuhn, Ron I. Eytan, Thomas J. Near

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

196 Scopus citations


The perciform group Labroidei includes approximately 2600 species and comprises some of the most diverse and successful lineages of teleost fishes. Composed of four major clades, Cichlidae, Labridae (wrasses, parrotfishes, and weed whitings), Pomacentridae (damselfishes), and Embiotocidae (surfperches); labroids have been an icon for studies of biodiversity, adaptive radiation, and sexual selection. The success and diversification of labroids have been largely attributed to the presence of a major innovation in the pharyngeal jaw apparatus, pharyngognathy, which is hypothesized to increase feeding capacity and versatility. We present results of large-scale phylogenetic analyses and a survey of pharyngeal jaw functional morphology that allow us to examine the evolution of pharyngognathy in a historical context. Phylogenetic analyses were based on a sample of 188 acanthomorph (spiny-rayed fish) species, primarily percomorphs (perch-like fishes), and DNA sequence data collected from 10 nuclear loci that have been previously used to resolve higher level ray-finned fish relationships. Phylogenies inferred from this dataset using maximum likelihood, Bayesian, and species tree analyses indicate polyphyly of the traditional Labroidei and clearly separate Labridae from the remainder of the traditional labroid lineages (Cichlidae, Embiotocidae, and Pomacentridae). These three "chromide" families grouped within a newly discovered clade of 40 families and more than 4800 species (>27 of percomorphs and >16 of all ray-finned fishes), which we name Ovalentaria for its characteristic demersal, adhesive eggs with chorionic filaments. This fantastically diverse clade includes some of the most species-rich lineages of marine and freshwater fishes, including all representatives of the Cichlidae, Embiotocidae, Pomacentridae, Ambassidae, Gobiesocidae, Grammatidae, Mugilidae, Opistognathidae, Pholidichthyidae, Plesiopidae (including Notograptus), Polycentridae, Pseudochromidae, Atherinomorpha, and Blennioidei. Beyond the discovery of Ovalentaria, this study provides a surprising, but well-supported, hypothesis for a convict-blenny (Pholidichthys) sister group to the charismatic cichlids and new insights into the evolution of pharyngognathy. Bayesian stochastic mapping ancestral state reconstructions indicate that pharyngognathy has evolved at least six times in percomorphs, including four separate origins in members of the former Labroidei, one origin in the Centrogenyidae, and one origin within Beloniformes. Our analyses indicate that all pharyngognathous fishes have a mechanically efficient biting mechanism enabled by the muscular sling and a single lower jaw element. However, a major distinction exists between Labridae, which lacks the widespread, generalized percomorph pharyngeal biting mechanism, and all other pharyngognathous clades, which possess this generalized biting mechanism in addition to pharyngognathy. Our results reveal a remarkable history of pharyngognathy: far from a single origin, it appears to have evolved at least six times, and its status as a major evolutionary innovation is reinforced by it being a synapomorphy for several independent major radiations, including some of the most species rich and ecologically diverse percomorph clades of coral reef and tropical freshwater fishes, Labridae and Cichlidae. [Acanthomorpha; Beloniformes; Centrogenyidae; key innovation; Labroidei; Ovalentaria; pharyngeal jaws; Perciformes.]

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1001-1027
Number of pages27
JournalSystematic biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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