The structure of communities may be largely a result of evolutionary changes that occurred many millions of years ago. We explore the historical ecology of squamates (lizards and snakes), identify historically derived differences among clades, and examine how this history has affected present-day squamate assemblages globally. A dietary shift occurred in the evolutionary history of squamates. Iguanian diets contain large proportions of ants, other hymenopterans, and beetles, whereas these are minor prey in scleroglossan lizards. A preponderance of termites, grasshoppers, spiders, and insect larvae in their diets suggests that scleroglossan lizards harvest higher energy prey or avoid prey containing noxious chemicals. The success of this dietary shift is suggested by dominance of scleroglossans in lizard assemblages throughout the world. One scleroglossan clade, Autarchoglossa, combined an advanced vomeronasal chemosensory system with jaw prehension and increased activity levels. We suggest these traits provided them a competitive advantage during the day in terrestrial habitats. Iguanians and gekkotans shifted to elevated microhabitats historically, and gekkotans shifted activity to nighttime. These historically derived niche differences are apparent in extant lizard assemblages and account for some observed structure. These patterns occur in a variety of habitats at both regional and local levels throughout the world.