BACKGROUND: Damselfishes (Perciformes, Pomacentridae) are a major component of coral reef communities, and the functional diversity of their trophic anatomy is an important constituent of the ecological morphology of these systems. Using shape analyses, biomechanical modelling, and phylogenetically based comparative methods, we examined the anatomy of damselfish feeding among all genera and trophic groups. Coordinate based shape analyses of anatomical landmarks were used to describe patterns of morphological diversity and determine positions of functional groups in a skull morphospace. These landmarks define the lever and linkage structures of the damselfish feeding system, and biomechanical analyses of this data were performed using the software program JawsModel4 in order to calculate the simple mechanical advantage (MA) employed by different skull elements during feeding, and to compute kinematic transmission coefficients (KT) that describe the efficiency with which angular motion is transferred through the complex linkages of damselfish skulls. RESULTS: Our results indicate that pomacentrid planktivores are significantly different from other damselfishes, that biting MA values and protrusion KT ratios are correlated with pomacentrid trophic groups more tightly than KT scores associated with maxillary rotation and gape angle, and that the MAs employed by their three biting muscles have evolved independently. Most of the biomechanical parameters examined have experienced low levels of phylogenetic constraint, which suggests that they have evolved quickly. CONCLUSION: Joint morphological and biomechanical analyses of the same anatomical data provided two reciprocally illuminating arrays of information. Both analyses showed that the evolution of planktivory has involved important changes in pomacentrid functional morphology, and that the mechanics of upper jaw kinesis have been of great importance to the evolution of damselfish feeding. Our data support a tight and biomechanically defined link between structure and the functional ecology of fish skulls, and indicate that certain mechanisms for transmitting motion through their jaw linkages may require particular anatomical configurations, a conclusion that contravenes the concept of "many-to-one mapping" for fish jaw mechanics. Damselfish trophic evolution is characterized by rapid and repeated shifts between a small number of eco-morphological states, an evolutionary pattern that we describe as reticulate adaptive radiation.