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Concept: Amniote


Live birth has evolved many times independently in vertebrates, such as mammals and diverse groups of lizards and snakes. However, live birth is unknown in the major clade Archosauromorpha, a group that first evolved some 260 million years ago and is represented today by birds and crocodilians. Here we report the discovery of a pregnant long-necked marine reptile (Dinocephalosaurus) from the Middle Triassic (∼245 million years ago) of southwest China showing live birth in archosauromorphs. Our discovery pushes back evidence of reproductive biology in the clade by roughly 50 million years, and shows that there is no fundamental reason that archosauromorphs could not achieve live birth. Our phylogenetic models indicate that Dinocephalosaurus determined the sex of their offspring by sex chromosomes rather than by environmental temperature like crocodilians. Our results provide crucial evidence for genotypic sex determination facilitating land-water transitions in amniotes.

Concepts: Biology, Bird, Reptile, Mammal, Dinosaur, Amniote, Archosauromorpha, Prolacertiformes


Secondary adaptation to aquatic life occurred independently in several amniote lineages, including reptiles during the Mesozoic and mammals during the Cenozoic. These evolutionary shifts to aquatic environments imply major morphological modifications, especially of the feeding apparatus. Mesozoic (250-65 Myr) marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, mosasaurid squamates, crocodiles, and turtles, exhibit a wide range of adaptations to aquatic feeding and a broad overlap of their tooth morphospaces with those of Cenozoic marine mammals. However, despite these multiple feeding behavior convergences, suction feeding, though being a common feeding strategy in aquatic vertebrates and in marine mammals in particular, has been extremely rarely reported for Mesozoic marine reptiles.

Concepts: Reptile, Mammal, Cretaceous, Synapsid, Dinosaur, Amniote, Mesozoic, Plesiosaur


IN RESOLVING THE VERTEBRATE TREE OF LIFE, TWO FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS REMAIN: 1) what is the phylogenetic position of turtles within amniotes, and 2) what are the relationships between the three major lissamphibian (extant amphibian) groups? These relationships have historically been difficult to resolve, with five different hypotheses proposed for turtle placement, and four proposed branching patterns within Lissamphibia. We compiled a large cDNA/EST dataset for vertebrates (75 genes for 129 taxa) to address these outstanding questions. Gene-specific phylogenetic analyses revealed a great deal of variation in preferred topology, resulting in topologically ambiguous conclusions from the combined dataset. Due to consistent preferences for the same divergent topologies across genes, we suspected systematic phylogenetic error as a cause of some variation. Accordingly, we developed and tested a novel statistical method that identifies sites that have a high probability of containing biased signal for a specific phylogenetic relationship. After removing putatively biased sites, support emerged for a sister relationship between turtles and either crocodilians or archosaurs, as well as for a caecilian-salamander sister relationship within Lissamphibia, with Lissamphibia potentially paraphyletic.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Reptile, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Tetrapod, Amphibian, Amniote


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.

Concepts: Reptile, Tetrapod, Synapsid, Lizard, Amniote, Carboniferous, Permian, Anapsid


Of the nearly 6,800 extant frog species, most have weak jaws that play only a minor role in prey capture. South American horned frogs (Ceratophrys) are a notable exception. Aggressive and able to consume vertebrates their own size, these “hopping heads” use a vice-like grip of their jaws to restrain and immobilize prey. Using a longitudinal experimental design, we quantified the ontogenetic profile of bite-force performance in post-metamorphic Ceratophrys cranwelli. Regression slopes indicate positive allometric scaling of bite force with reference to head and body size, results that concur with scaling patterns across a diversity of taxa, including fish and amniotes (lizards, tuatara, turtles, crocodylians, rodents). Our recovered scaling relationship suggests that exceptionally large individuals of a congener (C. aurita) and extinct giant frogs (Beelzebufo ampinga, Late Cretaceous of Madagascar) probably could bite with forces of 500 to 2200 N, comparable to medium to large-sized mammalian carnivores.

Concepts: Reptile, Mammal, Cretaceous, Tetrapod, Amphibian, Frog, Dinosaur, Amniote


Nocturnality is a key evolutionary innovation of mammals that enables mammals to occupy relatively empty nocturnal niches. Invasion of ancestral mammals into nocturnality has long been inferred from the phylogenetic relationships of crown Mammalia, which is primarily nocturnal, and crown Reptilia, which is primarily diurnal, although molecular evidence for this is lacking. Here we used phylogenetic analyses of the vision genes involved in the phototransduction pathway to predict the diel activity patterns of ancestral mammals and reptiles. Our results demonstrated that the common ancestor of the extant Mammalia was dominated by positive selection for dim-light vision, supporting the predominate nocturnality of the ancestral mammals. Further analyses showed that the nocturnality of the ancestral mammals was probably derived from the predominate diurnality of the ancestral amniotes, which featured strong positive selection for bright-light vision. Like the ancestral amniotes, the common ancestor of the extant reptiles and various taxa in Squamata, one of the main competitors of the temporal niches of the ancestral mammals, were found to be predominate diurnality as well. Despite this relatively apparent temporal niche partitioning between ancestral mammals and the relevant reptiles, our results suggested partial overlap of their temporal niches during crepuscular periods.

Concepts: Evolution, Reptile, Mammal, Synapsid, Diurnality, Amniote, Nocturnality, Crepuscular


In many animals, behaviours such as territoriality, mate guarding, navigation and food acquisition rely heavily on spatial memory abilities; this has been demonstrated in diverse taxa, from invertebrates to mammals. However, spatial memory ability in squamate reptiles has been seen as possible, at best, or non-existent, at worst. Of the few previous studies testing for spatial memory in squamates, some have found no evidence of spatial memory while two studies have found evidence of spatial memory in snakes, but have been criticized based on methodological issues. We used the Barnes maze, a common paradigm to test spatial memory abilities in mammals, to test for spatial memory abilities in the side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana). We found the existence of spatial memory in this species using this spatial task. Thus, our study supports the existence of spatial memory in this squamate reptile species and seeks to parsimoniously align this species with the diverse taxa that demonstrate spatial memory ability.

Concepts: Reptile, Mammal, Squamata, Lizard, Amniote, Tuatara, Side-blotched lizard, Phrynosomatidae


The hooked element in the pes of turtles was historically identified by most palaeontologists and embryologists as a modified fifth metatarsal, and often used as evidence to unite turtles with other reptiles with a hooked element. Some recent embryological studies, however, revealed that this element might represent an enlarged fifth distal tarsal. We herein provide extensive new myological and developmental observations on the hooked element of turtles, and re-evaluate its primary and secondary homology using all available lines of evidence. Digital count and timing of development are uninformative. However, extensive myological, embryological and topological data are consistent with the hypothesis that the hooked element of turtles represents a fusion of the fifth distal tarsal with the fifth metatarsal, but that the fifth distal tarsal dominates the hooked element in pleurodiran turtles, whereas the fifth metatarsal dominates the hooked element of cryptodiran turtles. The term ‘ansulate bone’ is proposed to refer to hooked elements that result from the fusion of these two bones. The available phylogenetic and fossil data are currently insufficient to clarify the secondary homology of hooked elements within Reptilia.

Concepts: Evolution, Turtle, Reptile, Fossil, Dinosaur, Tortoise, Amniote


Roadways pose serious threats to animal populations. The installation of roadway mitigation measures is becoming increasingly common, yet studies that rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of these conservation tools remain rare. A highway expansion project in Ontario, Canada included exclusion fencing and ecopassages as mitigation measures designed to offset detrimental effects to one of the most imperial groups of vertebrates, reptiles. Taking a multispecies approach, we used a Before-After-Control-Impact study design to compare reptile abundance on the highway before and after mitigation at an Impact site and a Control site from 1 May to 31 August in 2012 and 2013. During this time, radio telemetry, wildlife cameras, and an automated PIT-tag reading system were used to monitor reptile movements and use of ecopassages. Additionally, a willingness to utilize experiment was conducted to quantify turtle behavioral responses to ecopassages. We found no difference in abundance of turtles on the road between the un-mitigated and mitigated highways, and an increase in the percentage of both snakes and turtles detected dead on the road post-mitigation, suggesting that the fencing was not effective. Although ecopassages were used by reptiles, the number of crossings through ecopassages was lower than road-surface crossings. Furthermore, turtle willingness to use ecopassages was lower than that reported in previous arena studies, suggesting that effectiveness of ecopassages may be compromised when alternative crossing options are available (e.g., through holes in exclusion structures). Our rigorous evaluation of reptile roadway mitigation demonstrated that when exclusion structures fail, the effectiveness of population connectivity structures is compromised. Our project emphasizes the need to design mitigation measures with the biology and behavior of the target species in mind, to implement mitigation designs in a rigorous fashion, and quantitatively evaluate road mitigation to ensure allow for adaptive management and optimization of these increasingly important conservation tools.

Concepts: Turtle, Reptile, Road, Freeway, Infrastructure, Motorway, Amniote, The Road


The distributions of amphibians, birds and mammals have underpinned global and local conservation priorities, and have been fundamental to our understanding of the determinants of global biodiversity. In contrast, the global distributions of reptiles, representing a third of terrestrial vertebrate diversity, have been unavailable. This prevented the incorporation of reptiles into conservation planning and biased our understanding of the underlying processes governing global vertebrate biodiversity. Here, we present and analyse the global distribution of 10,064 reptile species (99% of extant terrestrial species). We show that richness patterns of the other three tetrapod classes are good spatial surrogates for species richness of all reptiles combined and of snakes, but characterize diversity patterns of lizards and turtles poorly. Hotspots of total and endemic lizard richness overlap very little with those of other taxa. Moreover, existing protected areas, sites of biodiversity significance and global conservation schemes represent birds and mammals better than reptiles. We show that additional conservation actions are needed to effectively protect reptiles, particularly lizards and turtles. Adding reptile knowledge to a global complementarity conservation priority scheme identifies many locations that consequently become important. Notably, investing resources in some of the world’s arid, grassland and savannah habitats might be necessary to represent all terrestrial vertebrates efficiently.The global distribution of nearly all extant reptile species reveals richness patterns that differ spatially from that of other taxa. Conservation prioritization should specifically consider reptile distributions, particularly lizards and turtles.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Species, Bird, Reptile, Tetrapod, Synapsid, Amniote