Anti-predator defence drives parallel morphological evolution in flea beetles.
Complex morphological or functional traits are frequently considered evolutionarily unique and hence useful for taxonomic classification. Flea beetles (Alticinae) are characterized by an extraordinary jumping apparatus in the usually greatly expanded femur of their hind legs that separates them from the related Galerucinae. Here, we examine the evolution of this trait using phylogenetic analysis and a time-calibrated tree from mitochondrial (rrnL and cox1) and nuclear (small subunits and large subunits) genes, as well as morphometrics of femora using elliptic Fourier analysis. The phylogeny strongly supports multiple independent origins of the metafemoral spring and therefore rejects the monophyly of Alticinae, as defined by this trait. Geometric outline analysis of femora shows the great plasticity of this structure and its correlation with the type and diversity of the metafemoral springs. The recognition of convergence in jumping apparatus now resolves the long-standing difficulties of Galerucinae-Alticinae classification, and cautions against the value of trait complexity as a measure of taxonomic significance. The lineage also shows accelerated species diversification rates relative to other leaf beetles, which may be promoted by the same ecological factors that also favour the repeated evolution of jumping as an anti-predation mechanism.
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