The performance of an organism is the crucial link between its phenotype and its ecological success. When does an organism's morphology affect its performance? Quantitative mechanistic analyses of how function depends on biological form have shown that the relationship between morphology and performance can be nonlinear, context-dependent, and sometimes surprising. In some cases, small changes in morphology or simple changes in size can lead to novel functions, while in other cases changes in form can occur without performance consequences. Furthermore, the effect of a specific change in morphology can depend on the size, shape, stiffness, or habitat of an organism. Likewise, a particular change in posture or behavior can produce opposite effects when performed by bodies with different morphologies. These mechanistic studies not only reveal potential misconceptions that can arise from the descriptive statistical analyses often used in ecological and evolutionary research, but they also show how new functions, and novel consequences of changes in morphology, can arise simply as the result of changes in size or habitat. Such organismal-level mechanistic research can be used in concert with other tools to gain insights about issues in ecology (e.g. foraging, competition, disturbance, keystone species, functional groups) and evolution (e.g. adaptation, interpretation of fossils, and origin of novelty).


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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