Background: While bilaterality is a defining characteristic of triploblastic animals, several assemblages have managed to break this symmetry in order to exploit the adaptive peaks garnered through the lateralization of behaviour or morphology. One striking example of an evolved asymmetry in vertebrates comes from a group of scale-eating cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika. Members of the Perissodini tribe of cichlid fishes have evolved dental and craniofacial asymmetries in order to more effectively remove scales from the left or right flanks of prey. Here we examine the evolution and development of craniofacial morphology and laterality among Lake Tanganyika scale-eating cichlids.Results: Using both geometric and traditional morphometric methods we found that the craniofacial evolution in the Perissodini involved discrete shifts in skeletal anatomy that reflect differences in habitat preference and predation strategies. Further, we show that the evolutionary history of the Perissodini is characterized by an accentuation of craniofacial laterality such that certain taxa show elaborate sided differences in craniofacial shape consistent with the sub-partitioning of function between sides of the head during attacks. Craniofacial laterality in the scale-eating specialist Perissodus microlepis was found to be evident early in development and exhibited a unimodal distribution, which is contrary to the adult condition where jaw laterality has been described as a discrete, bimodal antisymmetry. Finally, using linkage and association analyses we identified a conserved locus for jaw handedness that segregates among East African cichlids.Conclusions: We suggest that, during the evolution of the Perissodini, selection has accentuated a latent, genetically determined handedness of the craniofacial skeleton, enabling the evolution of jaw asymmetries in order to increase predation success. Continued work on the developmental genetic basis of laterality in the Perissodini will facilitate a better understanding of the evolution of this unique group of fishes, as well as of left-right axis determination among vertebrates in general.
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