Homeotic effects, somitogenesis and the evolution of vertebral numbers in recent and fossil amniotes.
ABSTRACT: The development of distinct regions in the amniote vertebral column results from somite formation and Hox gene expression, with the adult morphology displaying remarkable variation among lineages. Mammalian regionalization is reportedly very conservative or even constrained, but there has been no study investigating vertebral count variation across Amniota as a whole, undermining attempts to understand the phylogenetic, ecological, and developmental factors affecting vertebral column variation. Here, we show that the mammalian (synapsid) and reptilian lineages show early in their evolutionary histories clear divergences in axial developmental plasticity, in terms of both regionalization and meristic change, with basal synapsids sharing the conserved axial configuration of crown mammals, and basal reptiles demonstrating the plasticity of extant taxa. We conducted a comprehensive survey of presacral vertebral counts across 436 recent and extinct amniote taxa. Vertebral counts were mapped onto a generalized amniote phylogeny as well as individual ingroup trees, and ancestral states were reconstructed by using squared-change parsimony. We also calculated the relationship between presacral and cervical numbers to infer the relative influence of homeotic effects and meristic changes and found no correlation between somitogenesis and Hox-mediated regionalization. Although conservatism in presacral numbers characterized early synapsid lineages, in some cases reptiles and synapsids exhibit the same developmental innovations in response to similar selective pressures. Conversely, increases in body mass are not coupled with meristic or homeotic changes, but mostly occur in concert with postembryonic somatic growth. Our study highlights the importance of fossils in large-scale investigations of evolutionary developmental processes.
Project description:Understanding how developmental processes change on macroevolutionary timescales to generate body plan disparity is fundamental to the study of vertebrate evolution. Adult morphology of the vertebral column directly reflects the mechanisms that generate vertebral counts (somitogenesis) and their regionalisation (homeotic effects) during embryonic development. Sauropterygians were a group of Mesozoic marine reptiles that exhibited an extremely high disparity of presacral vertebral/somite counts. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, we demonstrate that somitogenesis and homeotic effects evolved in a co-ordinated way among sauropterygians, contrasting with the wider pattern in tetrapods, in which somitogenetic and homeotic shifts are uncorrelated. Changes in sauropterygian body proportions were primarily enabled by homeotic shifts, with a lesser, but important, contribution from differences in postpatterning growth among somites. High body plan plasticity was present in Triassic sauropterygians and was maintained among their Jurassic and Cretaceous descendants. The extreme disparity in the body plan of plesiosaurian sauropterygians did not result from accelerated rates of evolutionary change in neck length, but instead reflect this ancestral versatility of sauropterygian axial development. Our results highlight variation in modes of axial development among tetrapods, and show that heterogeneous statistical models can uncover novel macroevolutionary patterns for animal body plans and the developmental mechanisms that control them.
Project description:Amniotes, tetrapods that evolved the cleidoic egg and thus independence from aquatic larval stages, appeared ca 314 Ma during the Coal Age. The rapid diversification of amniotes and other tetrapods over the course of the Late Carboniferous period was recently attributed to the fragmentation of coal-swamp rainforests ca 307 Ma. However, the amniote fossil record during the Carboniferous is relatively sparse, with ca 33% of the diversity represented by single specimens for each species. We describe here a new species of reptilian amniote that was collected from uppermost Carboniferous rocks of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Erpetonyx arsenaultorum gen. et sp. nov. is a new parareptile distinguished by 29 presacral vertebrae and autapomorphies of the carpus. Phylogenetic analyses of parareptiles reveal E. arsenaultorum as the closest relative of bolosaurids. Stratigraphic calibration of our results indicates that parareptiles began their evolutionary radiation before the close of the Carboniferous Period, and that the diversity of end-Carboniferous reptiles is 80% greater than suggested by previous work. Latest Carboniferous reptiles were still half as diverse as synapsid amniotes, a disparity that may be attributable to preservational biases, to collecting biases, to the origin of herbivory in tetrapods or any combination of these factors.
Project description:Nocturnality is widespread among extant mammals and often considered the ancestral behavioural pattern for all mammals. However, mammals are nested within a larger clade, Synapsida, and non-mammalian synapsids comprise a rich phylogenetic, morphological and ecological diversity. Even though non-mammalian synapsids potentially could elucidate the early evolution of diel activity patterns and enrich the understanding of synapsid palaeobiology, data on their diel activity are currently unavailable. Using scleral ring and orbit dimensions, we demonstrate that nocturnal activity was not an innovation unique to mammals but a character that appeared much earlier in synapsid history, possibly several times independently. The 24 Carboniferous to Jurassic non-mammalian synapsid species in our sample featured eye morphologies consistent with all major diel activity patterns, with examples of nocturnality as old as the Late Carboniferous (ca 300 Ma). Carnivores such as Sphenacodon ferox and Dimetrodon milleri, but also the herbivorous cynodont Tritylodon longaevus were likely nocturnal, whereas most of the anomodont herbivores are reconstructed as diurnal. Recognizing the complexity of diel activity patterns in non-mammalian synapsids is an important step towards a more nuanced picture of the evolutionary history of behaviour in the synapsid clade.
Project description:Many lizards can drop a portion of their tail in response to an attack by a predator, a behaviour known as caudal autotomy. The capacity for intravertebral autotomy among modern reptiles suggests that it evolved in the lepidosaur branch of reptilian evolution, because no such vertebral features are known in turtles or crocodilians. Here we present the first detailed evidence of the oldest known case of caudal autotomy, found only among members of the Early Permian captorhinids, a group of ancient reptiles that diversified extensively and gained a near global distribution before the end-Permian mass extinction event of the Palaeozoic. Histological and SEM evidence show that these early reptiles were the first amniotes that could autotomize their tails, likely as an anti-predatory behaviour. As in modern iguanid lizards, smaller captorhinids were able to drop their tails as juveniles, presumably as a mechanism to evade a predator, whereas larger individuals may have gradually lost this ability. Caudal autotomy in captorhinid reptiles highlights the antiquity of this anti-predator behaviour in a small member of a terrestrial community composed predominantly of larger amphibian and synapsid predators.
Project description:The evolution of upright limb posture in mammals may have enabled modifications of the forelimb for diverse locomotor ecologies. A rich fossil record of non-mammalian synapsids holds the key to unraveling the transition from "sprawling" to "erect" limb function in the precursors to mammals, but a detailed understanding of muscle functional anatomy is a necessary prerequisite to reconstructing postural evolution in fossils. Here we characterize the gross morphology and internal architecture of muscles crossing the shoulder joint in two morphologically-conservative extant amniotes that form a phylogenetic and morpho-functional bracket for non-mammalian synapsids: the Argentine black and white tegu Salvator merianae and the Virginia opossum Didelphis virginiana. By combining traditional physical dissection of cadavers with nondestructive three-dimensional digital dissection, we find striking similarities in muscle organization and architectural parameters. Despite the wide phylogenetic gap between our study species, distal muscle attachments are notably similar, while differences in proximal muscle attachments are driven by modifications to the skeletal anatomy of the pectoral girdle that are well-documented in transitional synapsid fossils. Further, correlates for force production, physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), muscle gearing (pennation), and working range (fascicle length) are statistically indistinguishable for an unexpected number of muscles. Functional tradeoffs between force production and working range reveal muscle specializations that may facilitate increased girdle mobility, weight support, and active stabilization of the shoulder in the opossum-a possible signal of postural transformation. Together, these results create a foundation for reconstructing the musculoskeletal anatomy of the non-mammalian synapsid pectoral girdle with greater confidence, as we demonstrate by inferring shoulder muscle PCSAs in the fossil non-mammalian cynodont Massetognathus pascuali.
Project description:'Mycterosaurus' smithae, from the Cisuralian (early Permian) of Colorado, was first described in 1965 as a second species of the genus Mycterosaurus. While the type species of this genus, M. longiceps, has been shown by multiple cladistic analyses to belong to the basal synapsid family Varanopidae, 'M.' smithae has been largely ignored since its original description. Additional preparation and synchrotron scanning has revealed new significant information that supports the assignment of this species to a new genus: Vaughnictis gen. nov. Vaughnictis lacks many of the characteristics of mycterosaurines and varanopids in general: it lacks the slender femur, the linguo-labially compressed and strongly recurved teeth, and the lateral boss on the postorbital characteristic of this family. Instead, it possesses coronoid teeth, a large supratemporal, and a large pineal foramen positioned midway along the length of the parietal, features that support its assignment to Eothyrididae. Moreover, the postcranium shares many characters with the eothyridid Oedaleops. An expanded version of a recently published phylogenetic analysis of pelycosaurian-grade synapsids positions Vaughnictis as the sister taxon of Eothyris within the clade Eothyrididae. The addition of data on the postcranium of eothyridids and the inclusion of the recently-described basal caseid Eocasea confirms the recently-disputed position of caseasaurs as the most basal synapsids. As the parsimony analysis produced low support values and a lack of resolution due to missing data, additional analyses were undertaken using Bayesian and Implied Weights methods, which produced better resolution and relationships with higher support values. While the results are similar, alternative positions for the enigmatic Moscovian age (Carboniferous) synapsid Echinerpeton are suggested by Bayesian analysis; the parsimony analysis found it to be an ophiacodontid, while the Bayesian and Implied Weights analysis found it to be the sister to the Sphenacomorpha.
Project description:The relationship between developmental genes and phenotypic variation is of central interest in evolutionary biology. An excellent example is the role of Hox genes in the anteroposterior regionalization of the vertebral column in vertebrates. Archosaurs (crocodiles, dinosaurs including birds) are highly variable both in vertebral morphology and number. Nevertheless, functionally equivalent Hox genes are active in the axial skeleton during embryonic development, indicating that the morphological variation across taxa is likely owing to modifications in the pattern of Hox gene expression. By using geometric morphometrics, we demonstrate a correlation between vertebral Hox code and quantifiable vertebral morphology in modern archosaurs, in which the boundaries between morphological subgroups of vertebrae can be linked to anterior Hox gene expression boundaries. Our findings reveal homologous units of cervical vertebrae in modern archosaurs, each with their specific Hox gene pattern, enabling us to trace these homologies in the extinct sauropodomorph dinosaurs, a group with highly variable vertebral counts. Based on the quantifiable vertebral morphology, this allows us to infer the underlying genetic mechanisms in vertebral evolution in fossils, which represents not only an important case study, but will lead to a better understanding of the origin of morphological disparity in recent archosaur vertebral columns.
Project description:The amniote middle ear is a classical example of the evolutionary novelty. Although paleontological evidence supports the view that mammals and diapsids (modern reptiles and birds) independently acquired the middle ear after divergence from their common ancestor, the developmental bases of these transformations remain unknown. Here we show that lower-to-upper jaw transformation induced by inactivation of the Endothelin1-Dlx5/6 cascade involving Goosecoid results in loss of the tympanic membrane in mouse, but causes duplication of the tympanic membrane in chicken. Detailed anatomical analysis indicates that the relative positions of the primary jaw joint and first pharyngeal pouch led to the coupling of tympanic membrane formation with the lower jaw in mammals, but with the upper jaw in diapsids. We propose that differences in connection and release by various pharyngeal skeletal elements resulted in structural diversity, leading to the acquisition of the tympanic membrane in two distinct manners during amniote evolution.
Project description:The intervertebral disc (IVD) has long been considered unique to mammals. Palaeohistological sampling of 17 mostly extinct clades across the amniote tree revealed preservation of different intervertebral soft tissue types (cartilage, probable notochord) seen in extant reptiles. The distribution of the fossilised tissues allowed us to infer the soft part anatomy of the joint. Surprisingly, we also found evidence for an IVD in fossil reptiles, including non-avian dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and marine crocodiles. Based on the fossil dataset, we traced the evolution of the amniote intervertebral joint through ancestral character state reconstruction. The IVD evolved at least twice, in mammals and in extinct diapsid reptiles. From this reptilian IVD, extant reptile groups and some non-avian dinosaurs independently evolved a synovial ball-and-socket joint. The unique birds dorsal intervertebral joint evolved from this dinosaur joint. The tuatara and some geckos reverted to the ancestral persisting notochord.
Project description:The tetrapod vertebral column has become increasingly complex during evolution as an adaptation to a terrestrial life. At the same time, the evolution of the vertebral formula became subject to developmental constraints acting on the size of the cervical and thoraco-lumbar regions. In the course of our studies concerning the evolution of Hox gene regulation, we produced a transgenic mouse model expressing fish Hox genes, which displayed a reduced number of thoraco-lumbar vertebrae and concurrent sacral homeotic transformations. Here, we analyze this mutant stock and conclude that the ancestral, pre-tetrapodial Hox code already possessed the capacity to induce vertebrae with sacral characteristics. This suggests that alterations in the interpretation of the Hox code may have participated to the evolution of this region in tetrapods, along with potential modifications of the HOX proteins themselves. With its reduced vertebral number, this mouse stock violates a previously described developmental constraint, which applies to the thoraco-lumbar region. The resulting offset between motor neuron morphology, vertebral patterning and the relative positioning of hind limbs illustrates that the precise orchestration of the Hox-clock in parallel with other ontogenetic pathways places constraints on the evolvability of the body plan.