Category Archives: Extinction

An extinct frog that is still living

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Hybrids, as you probably know, are organisms that arise from the mating of two individuals of different species. A mule, for example, is a well known hybrid between a horse and a donkey. Hybrids are usually sterile, although not all of them are, and some of them have a very peculiar way to continue to exist by using a process called hybridogenesis.

Hybrids that rely on hybridogenesis function in the following way: there are two original species, let’s call them A and B. When they copulate with each other, they produce a hybrid offspring, AB, which has half of the genes from one parent and half from the other. In “normal” hybrids, such creatures are completely sterile, unable to produce viable gametes, or can give rise to a new hybrid species by producing mixed gametes. However, in this peculiar kind of hybrids, called kleptons, things work differently.

800px-rana_ridibunda_ii

Pelophylax kl. hispanicus, the holder of a treasure. Photo by Andreas Thomsen.*

When kleptons are producing gametes, they never recombine the genomes of the two parents, but rather exclude the genome of one of them and produce gametes that contain the genome of the other parent. For example, the hybrid AB produces only A gametes, while the B genome is excluded. This means that if AB mates with a partner of the species A, the offspring will be formed by pure A individuals. If mating with B, the offspring will contain only new AB hybrids.

hybridogenesis_in_water_frogs

The edible frog Pelophylax kl. esculentus is a klepton formed by breeding P. lessonae and P. ridibundus. The klepton only produces gametes of P. ridibundus, eliminating the genome of P. lessonae during meiosis. (Photo by Wikimedia user Darekk2).**

This mode of reproduction is very common in frogs of the genus Pelophylax, as the example seen in the picture above. Another interesting point about kleptons is that they are usually unable to mate with another klepton. They rely one the parent species to reproduce, therefore “parasitizing” them.

A recently published paper on Pelophylax frogs reports a peculiar case in which one of the parent species is extinct. The klepton, known as Pelophylax kl. hispanicus, is the result of P. bergeri crossing with a now extinct species of Pelophylax. The case is that the gametes that P. kl. hispanicus produce are of the extinct species, but they can only fertilize gametes of P. bergeri. In other words, we could say that the extinct species is still alive inside the klepton, relying on P. bergeri to pass to the next generations.

41598_2017_12942_fig1_html

Pelophylax kl. hispanicus is a klepton that maintains the genome of an extinct species alive. Image extracted from Dubey & Dufresnes (2017).**

The authors suggest that perhaps we could find a way to bring the extinct species back, separated from P. bergeri. Although the result of crossing two P. kl. hispanicus is an sterile offspring, they think that continuous trials may end up revealing an eventual fertile offspring. Is it worth trying? Perhaps. But anyway, this is one more astonishing feature of nature, don’t you agree?

How many more extinct species may be living in a similar way, trapped in a hybrid?

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References:

Wikipedia. Hybridogenesis in water frogs. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybridogenesis_in_water_frogs&gt;. Access on October 12, 2017.

Dubey, S.; Dufresnes, C. (2017) An extinct vertebrate preserved by its living hybridogenetic descendant. Scientific Reports 7: 12768. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-12942-y

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Darwin’s Planaria elegans: hidden, extinct or misidentified?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

During his epic voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and collected some amazing land planarians, a group that until then was very little known. One of the species he found was Geoplana vaginuloides, the type-species of the genus Geoplana, at that time named Planaria vaginuloides.

f6387-vaginuloides-pedrabranca40

Geoplana vaginuloides (Darwin, 1844), the first Brazilian land planarian species to be described. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

The second species described by Darwin was named Planaria elegans. Darwin’s description is as it follows:

“Position of the orifices as in P. vaginuloides. Anterior part of the body little elongated. Ocelli absent on the anterior extremity, and only a few round the margin of the foot. Colours beautiful; back snow-white, with two approximate lines of reddish brown; near the sides with several very fine parallel lines of the same tint; foot white, exteriorly clouded, together with the margin of the body, with pale blackish purple: body crossed by three colourless rings, in the two posterior of which the orifices are situated. Length 1 inch; breadth more uniform, and greater in proportion to length of the body, than in last species.
Hab. Same as in P. vaginuloides. [Rio de Janeiro]”

And this is all we know about this species. Darwin did not provide any drawing and later researchers did not report this species again, except when mentioning Darwin’s publication. As you can see by the description, it is not very accurate. He does not say what is the breadth of each line or band, neither how many of the “several fine parallel lines of the same tint” there are. Here is a quick drawing I did of how I imagine the creature would be:

image description

My idea of what Darwin’s Planaria elegans may have looked like. Head to the left. Credits to myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.**

In 1938, Albert Riester described a land planarian from Barreira, a district in the city of Teresópolis, Rio de Janeiro, naming it Geoplana barreirana. He described it as it follows (translated from the original in German):

“Land planarian found on a leaf after a rain; greatest lenght ca. 20 mm. Middle of the back white with two fine purple-red (atropurpureus light) parallel stripes. Outside of the white also limitted by pale red, then follows (on both sides) a black band and laterally a black-brown marmorate pattern over brown background. The middle stripe ends at the rear [end]. Head spotted, marked with transversal spotted bands (regenerate?). Underside gray, bordered by black-brown. Anterior end is arched backwards.”

Fortunately, Riester provided a drawing, which you can see below:

Barreirana_barreirana_Riester

Geoplana barreirana drawn by Riester (1938).

They look a bit alike, right? Fortunately Geoplana barreirana (currently named Barreirana barreirana) was found by later researchers and we have photographs! See one specimen below:

f6284_barreiranatijuca3

A specimen of Barreirana barreirana found in the Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

Riester did not describe any transversal marks on his specimens, but he may have mistaken them for color loss in preserved specimens or something like that. Otherwise the specimen looks very similar to Riester’s drawing, and the internal anatomy, which Riester provided as well, is also compatible.

Now let’s try to fit Darwin’s description of Planaria elegans in this photograph. White background, two reddish brown stripes and several fine parallel stripes of the same tint. He likely described the animals from preserved specimens, even though he have seen them alive and collected them. Perhaps the colors had already faded a little and the black stripes, which internally touch two of the reddish stripes, may have been considered a single purple-red stripe? It is not clear, in his description, whether there is white between the “reddish brown” stripes and the “pale blackish-purple” sides, as I did in my drawing, or not, as in Barreirana barreiranabut certainly the dark gray sides of B. barreirana could be the same as the pale blackish purple sides of Planaria elegans, don’t you think? And B. barreirana HAS three white “rings” crossing the body. You can see the first and the second very clearly on the specimen above. The third one is not very well marked, but you can see a third white mark interrupting the gray sides. And the second and almost third marks seem to be quite where one would expect the two orifices (mouth and gonopore) of the planarian to be!

And what about the ventral side? Darwin described P. elegan‘s as being white with a pale blackish purple border as the sides of the dorsum. Riester described G. barreirana‘s as being gray bordered by black-brown. Here is Barreirana barreirana‘s ventral side:

Barreirana barreirana from below

Ventral side of Barreirana barreirana from the Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.*

It is white, or pale gray perhaps, and the borders are of the same color as the sides of the dorsum!

I think it is very, very likely that Darwin’s Planaria elegans and Riester’s Geoplana barreirana are the same species. The fact that no one but Darwin has ever seen a specimen of Planaria elegans makes it even more likely.

What do you think?

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See also:

How are little flatworms colored? A Geoplana vaginuloides analysis.

The fabulous taxonomic adventure of the genus Geoplana.

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References:

Darwin, C. (1844) Brief Description of several Terrestrial Planariae, and of some remarkable Marine Species, with an Account of their Habits. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 14, 241–251.

Riester, A. (1938) Beiträge zur Geoplaniden-Fauna Brasiliens. Abhandlungen der senkenbergischen naturforschenden Gesellschaft 441, 1–88.

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Going a long way with your mouth open to new tastes

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Everybody knows that human activities have driven our environment toward an unfortunate situation. The most popular forms of human impact include pollution, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources, but certainly an important factor in remodeling ecosystems is the invasion of species.

While humans move around the world, they carry many species with them, either intentionally or not, an some of them establish successfully in the new environment, while others do not. But what makes some species become successful invaders while other are unable to do so?

It is clear for some time that having a broad niche, i.e., a broad tolerance in environmental conditions and a broad use of resources is very important to succeed in invading a new habitat. Food niche breadth, i.e., the amount of different food types one can ingest, is among the most important dimensions of the niche influencing the spread of a species.

I myself studied the food niche breadth of six Neotropical land planarians in my master’s thesis (see references below) and it was clear that the species with the broader niche are more likely to become invasive. Actually, the one with the broadest food niche, Obama nungara, is already an invader in Europe, as I already discussed here.

obama_marmorata_7

A specimen of Obama nungara from Southern Brazil that I used in my research. Photo by myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.*

But O. nungara has a broad food niche in its native range, which includes southern Brazil, and likely reflected this breadth in Europe. But could a species that has a narrow food niche in its native range broaden it in a new environment?

A recent study by Courant et al. (see references) investigated the diet of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, that is an invasive species in many parts of the world. They compared its diet in its native range in South Africa whith that in several populations in other countries (United States, Wales, Chile, Portugal and France).

Xenopus_laevis

The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

The results indicated that X. laevis has a considerable broad niche in both its native and non-native ranges, but the diet in Portugal showed a greater shift compared to that in other areas, which indicates a great ability to adapt to new situations. In fact, the population from Portugal lives in running water, while in all other places this species prefers still water.

We can conclude that part of the success of the African clawed frog when invading new habitats is linked to its ability to try new tastes, broadening its food niche beyond that from its original populations. The situation in Portugal, including a different environment and a different diet, may also be the result of an increased selective pressure and perhaps the chances are that this population will change into a new species sooner than the others.

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References:
Boll PK & Leal-Zanchet AM (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest. Zoology 119: 162–168.

Courant J, Vogt S, Marques R, Measey J, Secondi J, Rebelo R, Villiers AD, Ihlow F, Busschere CD, Backeljau T, Rödder D, & Herrel A (2017). Are invasive populations characterized by a broader diet than native populations? PeerJ 5: e3250.

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Land snails on islands: fascinating diversity, worrying vulnerability

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The class Gastropoda, which includes snails and slugs, is only beaten by the insects in number of species worldwide, having currently about 80 thousand described species. Among those, about 24 thousand live on land, where they are a very successful group, especially on oceanic islands.

The Hawaiian Islands alone, for example, have more than 750 snail species and there are more than 100 endemic species in the small island of Rapa in the South Pacific. This diversity is much higher than that in any continental place, but the reason for that is not completely understood.

Mandarina

A land snail of the genus Mandarina, endemic to the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Photo by flickr user kmkmks (Kumiko).*

One of the most likely explanations for this huge diversity on islands is related to the lack of predators. The most common predators of snails include birds, mammals, snakes, beetles, flatworms and other snails. Most of those are not present in small and isolated islands, which allows an increase in land snail populations in such places. Without too much dangers to worry about, the community of land snails n islands can explore a greater range of niches, eventually leading to speciation.

Unfortunately, as always, the lack of danger leads to recklessness. Without predators to worry about, insular land snails tend to lay fewer eggs than their mainland relatives. If there is no danger of having most of your children eaten, why would you have that many? It is better to lay larger eggs, putting more resources on fewer babies, and so assure that they will be strong enough to fight against other snail species. Afterall, the large number of species in such a small place as an island likely leads to an increased amount of competition between species.

But why is this recklessness? Well, because you never known when a predator will arrive. And they already arrived… due to our fault.

The diversity of insular land nails was certainly affected by habitat loss promoted by humans, but also by predators that we carried with us to the islands, whether intentionally or not. These predators include rats, the predatory snail Euglandina rosea and the land flatworm Platydemus manokwari, the latter being most likely the worst of all.

800px-platydemus_manokwari

The flatworm Platydemus manokwari in the Ogasawara Islands. Photo by Shinji Sugiura.

This flatworm arrived at the Chichijima Island, part of the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in the early 1990s and in about two decades it led most land snail species on the island to extinction and many more are about to face the same fate on this island and on others. Not being prepared for predators, these poor snails cannot reproduce fast enough to replace all individuals eaten by the flatworm.

We have to act quickly if we want to save those that are still left.

See also: The New Guinea flatworm visits France – a menace.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences and further reading:

Chiba, S., & Cowie, R. (2016). Evolution and Extinction of Land Snails on Oceanic Islands. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 47 (1), 123-141 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-112414-054331

Sugiura, S., Okochi, I., & Tamada, H. (2006). High Predation Pressure by an Introduced Flatworm on Land Snails on the Oceanic Ogasawara Islands. Biotropica, 38 (5), 700-703 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00196.x

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Friday Fellow: Amphibian chytrid fungus

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today I’m bringing you a species that is probably one of the most terrible ones to exist today, the amphibian chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, also known simply as Bd.

batrachochytrium_dendrobatidis

Several sporangia of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (spherical structures) growing on a freshwater arthropod. Photo by AJ Cann.*

The amphibian chytrid fungus, as its name says, is a chytrid, a fungus of the division Chytridiomycota, which include microscopic species that usually feed by degrading chitin, keratin in other such materials. In the case of the amphibian chytrid fungus, it infects the skin of amphibians and feeds on it. It grows through the skin forming a network of rhizoids that originate spherical sporangia that contains spores.

The infection caused by the amphibian chytrid fungus is called chytridiomycosis. It causes a series of symptoms, including reddening of the skin, lethargy, convlusions, anorexia and excessive thickening and shedding of the skin. This thickening of the skin leads to problems in taking in nutrients, releasing toxins and even breathing, eventually leading to death.

chytridiomycosis

An individual of the species Atelopus limosus infected by the amphibian chytrid fungus. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

Since its discovery and naming in 1998, the amphibian chytrid fungus has devastated the populations of many amphibian species throughout the world. Some species, such as the golden toad and the Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog, were recently extinct by this terrible fungus. This whole drastic scenario is already considered one of the most severe examples of Holocene extinction. The reason for such a sudden increase in the infections is unknown, but it may be related to human impact on the environment.

We can only hope to find a way to reduce the spread of this nightmare to biodiversity.

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ResearchBlogging.org
References:

Fisher, M., Garner, T., & Walker, S. (2009). Global Emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and Amphibian Chytridiomycosis in Space, Time, and Host Annual Review of Microbiology, 63 (1), 291-310 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.micro.091208.073435

Wikipedia. Batrachochytridium dendrobatidis. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batrachochytrium_dendrobatidis&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Chytridiomycosis. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chytridiomycosis&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

Wikipedia. Decline in amphibian populations. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_in_amphibian_populations&gt;. Access on March 4, 2017.

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Shaking dinosaur hips and messing with their heads

by Piter Kehoma Boll

This week brought astonishing news regarding the phylogeny of dinosaurus, as you perhaps have heard or read. New anatomical evidences have completely rebuilt the basis of the dinosaur family tree and I’m here to explain a little bit of what happened.

As we all know, Dinosaurs include a great variety of beasts, from the meat-eating theropods to the long-necked sauropods and from the horned ceratopsians to the armored ankylosaurs, among many others.

largestdinosaursbysuborder_scale

Silhouette of a human compared to the largest known dinosaurs of each major group. Picture by Matt Martyniuk.*

For more than a century now, dinosaurus have been divided into two groups, called Ornithischia and Saurischia. Ornithischia (“bird-hipped”) includes dinosaurus whose pelvic bones are more similar to what is found in birds, with a pubis directed backward. Saurischia (“lizard-hipped”), on the other hand, have a pubis directed forward, as in reptiles in general. This grouped the theropods and the sauropods in the same group as Saurischia while other dinosaurus were grouped as Ornithischia. But birds are actually theropods, thus being lizard-hipped dinosaurus and not bird-hipped dinosaurus! Confusing, isn’t it? So let’s take a look at their hips:

Pelvic_bones

Comparison of the hips of a crocodile (Crocodylus), a sauropod (Diplodocus), a non-avian theropod (Tyrannosaurus), a bird (Apteryx), a thyreophoran (Stegosaurus), and an ornithopod (Iguanodon). Red = pubis; Blue = ischium; Yellow = ilium. Picture by myself, Piter K. Boll.**

As you can see, the primitive state, found in crocodiles, sauropods and early theropods, is a pubis pointing forward. A backward-pointing pubis evolved at least twice independently, both in more advanced theropods (such as birds) and the ornithischian dinosaurus. But could we be so certain that Tyrannosaurus and Diplodocus are more closely related to each other (forming a clade Saurischia) just because of their hips? Afterall, this is a primitive hip, so it is very unlikely to be a synapomorphy (a shared derived character). Nevertheless, it continued to be used as a character uniting sauropods and theropods.

A new paper published by Nature this week, however, showed new evidences that point to a different relationship of the groups. After a detailed analysis of the bone anatomy, Matthew G. Baron, David B. Norman and Paul M. Barrett have found 20 characters that unite theropods with ornithischians and not with sauropods. Among those we can mention the presence of a foramen (a hole) at the anterior region of the premaxillary bone that is inside the narial fossa (the depression of the bone that surrounds the nostril’s opening) and a sharp longitudinal ridge along the maxilla.

skulls

The skulls of both ornithischians and theropods (above) show an anterior premaxillary foramen in the narial fossa (shown in yellow) and and a sharp ridge on the maxilla (shown in green), as well as other characters that are not present in sauropodomorphs and herrerasaurids (below). Composition using original pictures by Carol Abraczinskas and Paul C. Sereno (Heterodontosaurus), Wikimedia user Ghedoghedo (Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus), and flickr user philosophygeek (Plateosaurus).**

In his blog Tetrapod Zoology, Dr. Darren Naish comments the new classification and points out some problems that arise with this new view. One of them is the fact that both theropods and sauropodomorphs have pneumatic (hollow) bones, while ornithischians do not. If the new phylogeny is closer to the truth, that means that pneumacity evolved twice independently or evolved once and was lost in ornithischians.

He also mentions that both ornithischians and theropods had hair-like or quill-like structures on their skin. In theropods this eventually led to feathers. Could this be another synapomorphy uniting these groups? Maybe… but when we think that pterosaurs also had “hairs”, one could also conclude that a “hairy” integumentary structure was already presented in the common ancestor of dinosaurus. In this case, perhaps, we only had not found it yet on sauropods. Now imagine a giant Argentinosaurus covered with feathers!

One concern that appeared with this new organization is whether sauropodomorphs would still be considered dinosaurs. The term “dinosaur” was coined by Richard Owen in 1842 to refer to the remains of the three genera known at the time, Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus and Megalosaurus, the first two being ornithischians and the latter a theropod. As a consequence, the original definition of dinosaur did not include sauropods. Similarly, the modern phylogenetic definition of dinosaur was “the least inclusive clade containing Passer domesticus (the house sparrow) and Triceratops horridus“. In order to allow Brachiosaurus and his friends to continue sitting  with the dinosaurs, Baron et al. suggested to expand the definition to include Diplodocus carnegii. So, dinosaurus would be the least inclusive clade containing P. domesticusT. horridus and D. carnegii.

In this new family tree, the name Saurischia would still be used, but to refer only to the sauropodomorphs and some primitive carnivores, the herrerasaurids. The new clade formed by uniting theropods and ornithischians was proposed to be called Ornithoscelida (“bird-legged”), a name coined in 1870 to refer to the bird-like hindlimbs of both theropods and ornithopods (the subgroup of ornithischians that includes dinosaurs such as Iguanodon and the duck-billed dinosaurs).

What can we conclude with all that? Nothing will change if you are just a dinosaur enthusiast and do not care about what’s an ornithischian and a saurischian. Now if you are a phylogeny fan, as I am, you are used to sudden changes in the branches. Most fossils of basal dinosaurs are incomplete, thus increasing the problem to know how they are related to each other. Perhaps this new view will last, perhaps new evidence will change all over again the next week.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences and further reading:

Baron, M., Norman, D., & Barrett, P. (2017). A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution Nature, 543 (7646), 501-506 DOI: 10.1038/nature21700

Naish, D. (2017). Ornithoscelida Rises: A New Family Tree for DinosaursTetrapod Zoology.

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Friday Fellow: Blue whale

by Piter Kehoma Boll

We’ve talked about the cutest and the leggiest, so now it’s time to introduce the largest, at once.

I think most of us know already that the largest animal ever is our beloved blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. It can reach 30 m in length and weigh more than 180 tonnes. It’s really big, but probably not as big as many people think. There are some popular legends, like that the heart of a blue whale is the saze of a car or that a human could swim inside its aorta, which are not actually true.

It's almost impossible to find a good photo of the entire body of a blue whale. Afterall, it's huge and lives underwater!

It’s almost impossible to find a good photo of the entire body of a blue whale. Afterall, it’s huge and lives underwater!

But what else can we say about the blue whale? It is a rorqual, a name used to designate whales in the family Balaenopteridae and, as all of them, its main and almost exclusive food is krill, a small crustacean very abundant in all oceans. And krill needs to be abundant in order to provide the thousands of tonnes that all whales in the oceans need to eat every day. A single blue whale eats up to 40 million krill in a day, which equals to roughly 3.5 tonnes. A blue whale calf (young) is born measuring around 7 m in length and drinks around 500 liters of milk per day!

Blue whales were abundant in nearly all oceans until the beginning of the 20th century, when they started to be hunted and were almost extinct. Nowadays, the real population size is hard to estimate, but may encompass as few as 5,000 specimens, much less than the estimated hundreds of thousands in the 19th century. Due to such a drastic reduction in the population, the blue whale is currently listed as “endangered” in IUCN’s Red List.

But let's see a blue whale in all of its blueness.

But let’s see a blue whale in all of its blueness.

Occasionally, blue whales can hybridize with fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and perhaps even with humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), a species classified in a different genus! Some recent genetic analyses, however, indicate that the Balaenoptera genus is polyphyletic and the blue whale may become known as Rorqualus musculus.

Different from other whales, blue whales usually live alone or in pairs, but never form groups, even though they may sometimes gather in places with high concentrations of food.

Like other cetaceans, especially other baleen whales, the blue whale sings. The song, however, is not as complex and dynamic as the ones produced by the related humpback whale. An intriguing fact that was recently discovered is that the frequency of the blue whale song is getting lower and lower at least since the 1960s. There is no good hypothesis to explain this phenomenon yet, but several ones have been proposed, such as the increase in background noise due to human activities or the increase in population density due to the decrease in whaling.

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References:

Hassanin, A.; Delsuc, F.; Ropiquet, A.; Hammer, C.; van Vuuren, B. J.; Matthee, C.; Ruiz-Garcia, M.; Catzeflis, F.; Areskoug, V.; Nguyen, T. T.; Couloux, A. 2012. Patter and timing of diversification of Cetartiodactyla (Mammalia, Laurasiatheria), as revealed by a comprehensive analysis of mitochondrial genomes.  Comptes Rendus Biologies, 335: 32-50.

Mellinger, D. K.; Clark, C. W. 2003. Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) sounds from the North Atlantic. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 114(2): 1108-1119.

Wikipedia. Blue whale. Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_whale&gt;. Access on January 27, 2016.

 

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