It is widely assumed that adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle are so profound as to produce only obvious differences between pinnipeds and the remaining, largely terrestrial carnivore species (“fissipeds”). Thus, comparative studies of the order Carnivora routinely examine these groups independently. This approach is invalid for two reasons. First, fissipeds are a paraphyletic assemblage, which raises the general issue of when it is appropriate to ignore monophyly as a criterion for inclusion in comparative studies. Second, the claim that most functional characters (beyond a few undoubted characteristic features) are different in pinnipeds and fissipeds has never been quantitatively examined, nor with phylogenetic comparative methods. We test for possible differences between these two groups in relation to 20 morphological, life-history, physiological, and ecological variables. Comparisons employed the method of independent contrasts based on a complete and dated species-level phylogeny of the extant Carnivora. Pinnipeds differ from fissipeds only through evolutionary grade shifts in a limited number of life-history traits: litter weight (vs. gestation length), birth weight, and age of eyes opening (both vs. size). Otherwise, pinnipeds display the same rate of evolution as phylogenetically equivalent fissiped taxa for all variables. Overall functional differences between pinnipeds and fissipeds appear to have been overstated and may be no greater than those among major fissiped groups. Recognition of this fact should lead to a more complete understanding of carnivore biology as a whole through more unified comparative tests. Comparative studies that do not include monophyletic groups for phylogenetically based comparative tests should be reconsidered.
Corresponding Editor: S. Edwards