Quantitative studies of the variation of disparity during ontogeny exhibited by the radiation of coral reef fishes are lacking. Such studies dealing with the variation of disparity, i.e. the diversity of organic form, over ontogeny could be a first step in detecting evolutionary mechanisms in these fishes. The damselfishes (Pomacentridae) have a bipartite life-cycle, as do the majority of demersal coral reef fishes. During their pelagic dispersion phase, all larvae feed on planktonic prey. On the other hand, juveniles and adults associated with the coral reef environment show a higher diversity of diets. Using geometric morphometrics, we study the ontogenetic dynamic of shape disparity of different head skeletal units (neurocranium, suspensorium and opercle, mandible and premaxilla) in this fish family. We expected that larvae of different species might be relatively similar in shapes. Alternatively, specialization may become notable even in the juvenile and adult phase.
The disparity levels increase significantly throughout ontogeny for each skeletal unit. At settlement, all larval shapes are already species-specific. Damselfishes show high levels of ontogenetic allometry during their post-settlement growth. The divergence of allometric patterns largely explains the changes in patterns and levels of shape disparity over ontogeny. The rate of shape change and the length of ontogenetic trajectories seem to be less variable among species. We also show that the high levels of shape disparity at the adult stage are correlated to a higher level of ecological and functional diversity in this stage.
Diversification throughout ontogeny of damselfishes results from the interaction among several developmental novelties enhancing disparity. The bipartite life-cycle of damselfishes exemplifies a case where the variation of environmental factors, i.e. the transition from the more homogeneous oceanic environment to the coral reef offering a wide range of feeding habits, promotes increasing shape disparity of the head skeleton over the ontogeny of fishes.