Document Type


Publication Date



Fishes have repeatedly evolved characteristic body shapes depending on how close they live to the substrate. Pelagic fishes live in open water and typically have narrow, streamlined body shapes; benthic and demersal fishes live close to the substrate; and demersal fishes often have deeper bodies. These shape differences are often associated with behavioral differences: pelagic fishes swim nearly constantly, demersal fishes tend to maneuver near the substrate, and benthic fishes often lie in wait on the substrate. We hypothesized that these morphological and behavioral differences would be reflected in the mechanical properties of the body, and specifically in vertebral column stiffness, because it is an attachment point for the locomotor musculature and a central axis for body bending. The vertebrae of bony fishes are composed of two cones connected by a foramen, which is filled by the notochord. Since the notochord is more flexible than bony vertebral centra, we predicted that pelagic fishes would have narrower foramina or shallower cones, leading to less notochordal material and a stiffer vertebral column which might support continuous swimming. In contrast, we predicted that benthic and demersal fishes would have more notochordal material, making the vertebral column more flexible for diverse behaviors in these species. We therefore examined vertebral morphology in 79 species using micro-computed tomography scans. Six vertebral features were measured including notochordal foramen diameter, centrum body length, and the cone angles and diameters for the anterior and posterior vertebral cones, along with body fineness. Using phylogenetic generalized least squares analyses, we found that benthic and pelagic species differed significantly, with larger foramina, shorter centra, and larger cones in benthic species. Thus, morphological differences in the internal shape of the vertebrae of fishes are consistent with a stiffer vertebral column in pelagic fishes and with a more flexible vertebral column in benthic species.


This article was originally published in Ecology and Evolution, volume 12, in 2022.


The authors

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.