Disparity appears to decrease or remain stable over geological time in numerous groups. This pattern is sometimes explained in terms of developmental constraints, but labile developmental systems might produce the same pattern should novelties interact, counterbalancing their individual effects. We test the hypothesis that counterbalancing can reduce disparity by comparing ontogenies of shape among nine species of piranhas to identify the developmental novelties. All three parameters examined change multiple times, sometimes dramatically. By comparing levels of disparity between species at two developmental phases, at the transition from larval to juvenile phases, and at maximum adult body size, we find that disparity decreases significantly and substantially over ontogeny. That reduction occurs because of, rather than despite, novelties of postlarval morphogenesis. Some interacting novelties are historically independent and affect different developmental phases, others are historically independent and affect the same developmental phase, and still others are historically correlated and affect either the same or different developmental phases. By modeling hypothetical ontogenies, constraining developmental parameters mathematically to one of the observed values, we find that variation in each parameter, taken by itself, and combinations of them taken two at a time, tend to increase disparity. It is the interactions among all three that reduce disparity. In this group divergent ontogenies transform disparate larvae into similar adults.

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