Background: A major goal in evolutionary biology is to understand the processes that shape the evolutionary trajectory of clades. The repeated and similar large-scale morphological evolutionary trends of distinct lineages suggest that adaptation by means of natural selection (functional constraints) is the major cause of parallel evolution, a very common phenomenon in extinct and extant lineages. However, parallel evolution can result from other processes, which are usually ignored or difficult to identify, such as developmental constraints. Hence, understanding the underlying processes of parallel evolution still requires further research.
Results: Herein, we present a possible case of parallel evolution between two ammonoid lineages (Auguritidae and Pinacitidae) of Early-Middle Devonian age (405-395 Ma), which are extinct cephalopods with an external, chambered shell. In time and through phylogenetic order of appearance, both lineages display a morphological shift toward more involute coiling (i.e. more tightly coiled whorls), larger adult body size, more complex suture line (the folded walls separating the gas-filled buoyancy-chambers), and the development of an umbilical lid (a very peculiar extension of the lateral shell wall covering the umbilicus) in the most derived taxa. Increased involution toward shells with closed umbilicus has been demonstrated to reflect improved hydrodynamic properties of the shell and thus likely results from similar natural selection pressures. The peculiar umbilical lid might have also added to the improvement of the hydrodynamic properties of the shell. Finally, increasing complexity of suture lines likely results from covariation induced by trends of increasing adult size and whorl overlap given the morphogenetic properties of the suture.
Conclusions: The morphological evolution of these two Devonian ammonoid lineages follows a near parallel evolutionary path for some important shell characters during several million years and through their phylogeny. Evolution of some traits (involution, umbilical lid) appears to be mainly driven by adaptation to improve the hydrodynamic properties of the shell, whereas other characters (sutural complexity) evolved due to covariation with features that play a central role in the morphogenesis of mollusc shells. This example provides evidence that parallel evolution can be driven simultaneously by different factors such as covariation (constructional constraints) and adaptation (natural selection).