Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cuban boas coordinate their hunting behavior

Snakes have long been thought to be solitary hunters. A new study from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, shows that the Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) coordinate their hunts to increase their chances of success. Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, observed Cuban Boa's hunting behavior in bat caves. Many Cuban caves shelter large bat colonies, and in some of them small populations of boas regularly hunt bats as they fly out at dusk and return at dawn. Dinets noticed that the boas hung down from the ceiling of the cave entrance and grabbed passing bats in midair. He found that if more than one boa was present, the snakes coordinated their positions in such a way that they formed a wall across the entrance. This made it difficult or impossible for the bats to pass without getting within striking distance of at least one boa. Such group hunts were always successful, and the more snakes present the less time it took each to capture a bat. But if there was only one boa, it sometimes failed to secure a meal. These findings were recently published open-access in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition. To date, only a handful of snakes have been observed hunting in groups, and coordination among them -- or among any other group-hunting reptiles -- has never been proven, Dinets said. Only a few of the world's 3,650 snake species have ever been observed hunting in the wild, so very little is known about snakes' diverse hunting tactics. "It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out," Dinets said. He added that observing the Cuban boa, although an amazing spectacle, is becoming increasingly difficult since only the most remote caves still have boas. The boas are being hunted for food and possibly pet trade. "I suspect that if their numbers in a cave fall, they can't hunt in groups anymore and might die out even if some of them don't get caught by hunters," Dinets said. "A few of these caves are in national parks, but there's a lot of poaching everywhere."


 Dinets V. 2017. Coordinated hunting by Cuban boas. Animal Behavior and Cognition, May 2017 DOI: 10.12966/abc.02.02.2017

Coral snake mimic loses pattern in absences of coral snake model

Tobago's Erythrolamprus ocellatus above. Trinidad's coral snake 
mimic E.  
aesculapii below.
Losses of adaptations in response to changed selective pressures are evolutionarily important phenomena but relatively few empirical examples have been investigated in detail. To help fill this gap, Hodson and Lehtinen took advantage of a natural experiment in which coral snake mimics occur on two nearby tropical islands, one that has coral snake models (Trinidad) and one that lacks them (Tobago).

The Tobago snake's pattern represents a loss of an adaptation in response to changed selective pressures. Relatively few empirical examples of adaptation loss have been investigated in detail. Hodson and Lehtinen took advantage of a natural experiment in which coral snake mimics occur on two nearby tropical islands, one that has coral snake models (Trinidad) and one that lacks them (Tobago). On Tobago, an endemic coral snake mimic (Erythrolamprus ocellatus) exists but has a relatively poor resemblance to coral snakes. Quantitative image analysis of museum specimens confirmed that E. ocellatus is a poor mimic of coral snakes.

To address questions related to the functional importance of this phenotype, the authors conducted a field experiment on both islands with snake replicas made of clay. These results clearly indicated a strong inter-island difference in predator attack rates where snake replicas that resembled coral snakes received protection in Trinidad but not in Tobago. Color patterns from museum specimens confirmed that E. ocellatus is indeed a poor mimic of coral snakes in many respects, especially in regards to the relative proportions of colors and the lack of discrete band. This implies that the classic coral snake mimicry adaptation has been degraded in this species. Field experiment revealed that E. ocellatus replicas were not protected from predator attacks on Tobago (where no coral snakes occur) compared to controls. However, on Trinidad (where coral snakes do occur) we found the expected lower attack rate on coral snake and mimic replicas compared to controls. Thus, E. ocellatus does not just look like a poor mimic to human eyes, its predators show no evidence of avoiding it.

Further, a molecular phylogenetic analysis of the ancestry of E. ocellatus revealed that this poor coral snake mimic is deeply nested in a clade of good coral snake mimics. Therefore the lack of coral snakes on Tobago altered the selective environment such that the coral snake mimicry adaptation was no longer advantageous. The failure to maintain this ancestral feature in allopatry provides a compelling example of how losses of complex adaptations can occur.

Hodson EE, Lehtinen RM. 2017. Diverse Evidence for the Decline of an Adaptation in a Coral Snake Mimic. Evolutionary Biology. 2017:1-0.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The last European varanid

The Desert Monitor, Varanus griseus is the extant species
with the closest distribution to Europe today
In a recent paper, Georgalis et al. (2017) report the remains of a varanid lizard from the middle Pleistocene of the Tourkobounia 5 locality near Athens, Greece. The new fossil material comprises cranial elements only (one maxilla, one dentary, and one tooth) and is attributed to the monitor lizard genus Varanus, the genus to which all European Neogene varanid remains have been assigned. Previously, the most recent undisputed varanid from Europe had been recovered from upper Pliocene sediments. The new Greek fossils, therefore, constitute the most recent records of monitor lizards from the continent. Despite being incomplete, this new material enhances our understanding of the cranial anatomy of the last European monitor lizards and is clearly not referable to any of the extant species such as Varanus griseus or Varanus niloticus - the only species that could be taken into consideration on a present-day geographic basis. However, these fossils could represent a survivor of the monitor lizards of Asian origin that inhabited Europe during the Neogene. Varanids first appear in the European fossil record during the Eocene. They are entirely absent from the European Oligocene faunas but appear again in the fossil record after the early Miocene. It is possible the European Paleogene varanids were victims of the Grande Coupure. The Grande Coupure refers to a break or change in faunal continuity about 33.5 MYA and marks the the end of the Eocene assemblages of mammals, with the arrival of Asian species in Europe. The authors note that on the basis of the available data this cannot be demonstrated with certainty. All of the Neogene European varanids appear to be members of Varanus, and they seem to have dispersed into Europe in the early Miocene. In fact, the earliest evidence of the genus on the European continent is recorded in the early Miocene of Spain. Whether these early Miocene immigrants originated directly from Africa or have Asian affinities cannot be demonstrated with certainty. The occurrence of Varanus-like forms in the late Eocene and early Oligocene of Egypt favors an African origin, but the Asian record is too weak to offer any insights. The fact that the maxilla from Tourkobounia 5 does not show any relationship with extant African taxa (V. albigularis, V. exanthematicus, V. griseus, V. niloticus, V. ornatus) suggests Asian affinities, as already reported for the extinct Varanus amnhophilis from the late Miocene of Samos. Whatever their exact origin, monitor lizards rapidly achieved a wide distribution throughout Europe during the Miocene. Fossils attributed to this genus have been described from localities in Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the Ukraine.


Georgalis, G. L., A. Villa, and M. Delfino. 2017. The last European varanid: demise and extinction of monitor lizards (Squamata, Varanidae) from Europe. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2017.1301946.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Some monitor lizards have not recovered from the introduction of the cane toad

Varanus panoptes Image credit: Greg Hume

The impact of invasive species is often underestimated by many. However, invasives can trigger trophic cascades in animal communities but published cases documenting the results of removing top predators are extremely rare. An exception is the invasive cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Australia, which has caused severe population declines in monitor lizards, triggering trophic cascades that facilitated dramatic and sometimes unexpected increases in several prey of the predators, including smaller lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and birds. Persistence of isolated populations of predators with a decades-long co-existence with toads suggests the possibility of recovery, but alternative explanations are possible. In a new paper, Doody et al. (2017)  note that confirming predator recovery requires longer-term study of populations with both baseline and immediate post-invasion densities. The authors had previously quantified the short-term impacts of the invasive cane toads over seven years at two sites in tropical Australia. In the new paper, they test the hypothesis that predators have begun to recover by repeating the study 12 years after the initial toad invasion. The three predatory lizards (Varanus panoptes, V. mertensi, V. mitchelli) that experienced 71-97% declines in the short-term study showed no sign of recovery, and indeed a worse fate. Two of the three species  (Varanus panoptes and V. mitchelli) were no longer detectable in 630 km of river surveys, suggesting local extirpation. Two mesopredators that had increased markedly in the short-term due to the above predator losses showed diverse responses in the medium-term; a small lizard species increased by about 500%, while populations of a snake species showed little change. Their results indicate a system still in ecological turmoil, having not yet reached a ‘new equilibrium’ more than a decade after the initial invasion; predator losses due to this toxic invasive species, and thus downstream effects, were not transient. Given that cane toads have proven too prolific to eradicate or control, we suggest that recovery of impacted predators must occur unassisted by evolutionary means: dispersal into extinction sites from surviving populations with alleles for toxin resistance or toad avoidance. Evolution and subsequent dispersal may be the only solution for a number of species or communities affected by invasive species for which control is either prohibitively expensive, or not possible.

Doody JS, Rhind D, Green B, Castellano C, McHenry C, Clulow S. 2017. Chronic effects of an invasive species on an animal community. Ecology. 2017 May 6.

Norisophis begaa, a new basal snake from the early Cretaceous

Image credits: Tyler Keillor (sculpture) and Ximena Erickson
(original photography); modified by Bonnie Miljour. 
Klein et al. (2017) note that fossil snakes are well represented in the Upper Cretaceous of northern Africa (99.7 to 94.3 MYA), with material known from Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Niger. The Moroccan Kem Kem beds have yielded a particularly diverse snake assemblage, with members of the families Simoliophiidae, Madtsoiidae, ?Nigerophiidae and several unnamed taxa co-occurring. These fossils are important for our understanding of the early evolutionary history of snakes, and may shed light on the ecology and initial diversification of basal snakes. Klien and colleagues (2017) describe a new taxon, Norisophis begaa, from the Kem Kem beds of Begaa, at  at Aferdou N'Chaft, in southeast Morocco. Although known only from vertebrae, the unique appearance of the fossils adds to our knowledge regarding the early history the snake fauna of the northern Africa's Late Cretaceous. The vertebrae are characterised by a marked interzygapophyseal constriction, parazygantral foramina, an incipient prezygapophyseal process, and an anterio-posteriorly short centrum. Several characteristics shared with Najash, Seismophis, Madtsoiidae, and Coniophis suggest that Norisophis is a stem ophidian. N. begaa further increases the diversity and disparity of snakes within the Kem Kem beds, supporting the hypothesis that Africa was a mid-Cretaceous hotspot for snake diversity.

Klein CG, Longrich NR, Ibrahim N, Zouhri S, Martill DM. 2017. A new basal snake from the mid-Cretaceous of Morocco. Cretaceous Research. 2017 Apr 30;72:134-41.

The rediscover of some Brazilian anoles and their biogeographic significance

Brazil's Atlantic Forest has montane ranges with an exceptionally high diversity of endemic amphibians and reptiles. Connections between this area and other areas of South America have been proposed as reason. In a new paper Ivan Prates and colleagues report the the rediscovery of Anolis nasofrontalis and Anolis pseudotigrinus, two mainland species from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest that were not reported for more than 40 years.

Coloration in life of Anolis nasofrontalis (A, B) and A. pseudotigrinus (C, D). In A, inset shows the black 
throat lining of A. nasofrontalis. Photographed specimens are females. Ivan Prates

By combine new genetic data with published sequences of species in the Dactyloa clade of Anolis they were able to investigate the phylogenetic relationships of A. nasofrontalis and A. pseudotigrinus, as well as estimate divergence times from their closest relatives.  The phylogenetic analysis recovered six main clades within Dactyloa, five of which were previously referred to as species series (aequatorialis, heterodermus, latifrons, punctatus, roquet). A sixth clade clustered A. nasofrontalis and A. pseudotigrinus with A. dissimilis from western Amazonia, A. calimae from the Andes, A. neblininus from the Guiana Shield, and two undescribed Andean taxa. This allowed them to  define a sixth species series within Dactyloa: the neblininus series. Close phylogenetic relationships between highly disjunct, narrowly-distributed anoles suggest that patches of suitable habitat connected the southern Atlantic Forest to western South America during the Miocene, in agreement with the age of former connections between the central Andes and the Brazilian Shield as a result of Andean orogeny. The data also support the view of recurrent evolution (or loss) of a twig anole-like phenotype in mainland anoles association with montane regions.

The neblininus series is composed of narrowly-distributed species that occur in mid-elevation sites, or adjacent habitats in the case of A. dissimilis, separated by large geographic distances. This pattern suggests a complex biogeographic history involving former patches of suitable habitat between regions, followed by habitat retraction and extinction in the intervening areas. In the case of A. nasofrontalis and A. pseudotigrinus, for instance, past forest corridors may explain a close relationship with the western Amazonian A. dissimilis. Atlantic and Amazonian rainforests are presently separated by open savannas and shrublands, yet geochemical records suggest that former pulses of increased precipitation and wet forest expansion have favored intermittent connections between them. These connections may have also been favored by major landscape shifts as a result of Andean orogeny, such as the establishment of the Chapare buttress, a land bridge that connected the central Andes to the western edge of the Brazilian Shield during the Miocene.

During morphological examinations of A. nasofrontalis and A. pseudotigrinus, it became apparent that these two species are not very different from Caribbean twig anoles, with whom they share short limbs and cryptic coloration. These features are also present in other, distantly-related mainland anoles, such as A. euskalerriari, A. orcesi, A. proboscis, and A. tigrinus. Phylogenetic relationships support that a twig anole-like phenotype was acquired (or lost) independently within Dactyloa, perhaps as a result of adaptive convergence. Alternatively, this pattern may reflect the conservation of an ancestral phenotype. In the former case, an apparent association with South American mountains is intriguing.

Unfortunately, natural history data from A. nasofrontalis and A. pseudotigrinus are lacking. It is currently unclear whether they  exhibit the typical ecological and behavioral traits that characterize the Caribbean twig anole ecomorph, such as active foraging, slow movements, infrequent running or jumping, and preference for narrow perching surfaces.


Prates I, Melo-Sampaio PR, de Oliveira Drummond L, Teixeira M, Rodrigues MT, Carnaval AC. 2017. Biogeographic links between southern Atlantic Forest and western South America: rediscovery, re-description, and phylogenetic relationships of two rare montane anole lizards from Brazil. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2017 May 11.

Prates, I. 2017. Legendary Brazilian Anoles Rediscovered.

Friday, May 19, 2017

First warm blooded vertebrate, Ophiacodon?

Ophiacodon mirus. Image Credit ru.wikapedia

People who like watching lizards often get the best opportunity to do so in the morning, as they can usually be found sunbathing at this time of day. This is because they rely on an external energy supply to reach their operating temperature. However, mice and other mammals make themselves nice and cozy in a different way: they burn calories and can even keep themselves warm during a bitterly cold winter's night.

Mammals are thus referred to as warm-blooded. Until now, it was thought that the "body heater" was invented in four-legged land animals around 270 million years ago. "However, our results indicate that warm-bloodedness could have been created 20 to 30 million years earlier," explains Prof. Martin Sander from the Steinmann Institute for Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn.

For long-extinct animals, it is naturally not possible to simply determine body temperature using a thermometer. However, warm-bloodedness leaves behind tell-tale signs in fossils. It not only means that the animal is not reliant on the ambient temperature, but also enables faster growth. "And this is shown in the structure of the bones," explains Sander.

Bones are composites of protein fibers, collagen, and a biomaterial, hydroxyapatite. The more orderly the arrangement of the collagen fibers, the more stable the bone, but the more slowly it normally grows as well. The bones of mammals thus have a special structure. This allows them to grow quickly and yet remain stable. "We call this bone form fibrolamellar," says the paleontologist.

Together with his PhD student Christen D. Shelton (now at the University of Cape Town), the scientist looked at humerus bones and femurs from a long-extinct land animal: the mammal predecessor Ophiacodon. This lived 300 million years ago. "Even in Ophiacodon, the bones grew as fibrolamellar bones," says Sander to summarize the analysis results. "This indicates that the animal could already have been warm-blooded."

Ophiacodon was up to two meters long, but otherwise resembled today's lizards -- and not without good reason: mammals and reptiles are related; they thus share a predecessor. In the family tree, Ophiacodon is very close to the place where these two branches separate.

However, lizards, turtles and other reptiles living today are cold-blooded. Until now, it has been assumed that this was the original form of the metabolism -- i.e. that the shared ancestor of both animal groups was cold-blooded. Warm-bloodedness would thus be a further development, which arose over the course of mammalian evolution.

However, Ophiacodon appears a very short time after the division between mammals and reptiles. "This raises the question of whether its warm-bloodedness was actually a completely new development or whether even the very first land animals before the separation of both branches were warm-blooded," says Sander. That is just speculation. However, if this theory is correct, we would have to drastically correct our image: the first reptiles would then also have been warm-blooded -- and would have only discarded this type of metabolism later.

Shelton CD, Sander PM. 2017. Long bone histology of Ophiacodon reveals the geologically earliest occurrence of fibrolamellar bone in the mammalian stem lineage. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.crpv.2017.02.00