Kelps and other fleshy macroalgae—dominant reef-inhabiting organisms in cool seas— may have radiated extensively following late Cenozoic polar cooling, thus triggering a chain of evolutionary change in the trophic ecology of nearshore temperate ecosystems. We explore this hypothesis through an analysis of body size in the abalones (Gastropoda; Haliotidae), a widely distributed group in modern oceans that displays a broad range of body sizes and contains fossil representatives from the late Cretaceous (60–75 Ma). Geographic analysis of maximum shell length in living abalones showed that small-bodied species, while most common in the Tropics, have a cosmopolitan distribution, whereas large-bodied species occur exclusively in cold-water ecosystems dominated by kelps and other macroalgae. The phylogeography of body size evolution in extant abalones was assessed by constructing a molecular phylogeny in a mix of large and small species obtained from different regions of the world. This analysis demonstrates that small body size is the plesiomorphic state and largeness has likely arisen at least twice. Finally, we compiled data on shell length from the fossil record to determine how (slowly or suddenly) and when large body size arose in the abalones. These data indicate that large body size appears suddenly at the Miocene/Pliocene boundary. Our findings support the view that fleshy-algal dominated ecosystems radiated rapidly in the coastal oceans with the onset of the most recent glacial age. We conclude with a discussion of the broader implications of this change.

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