Field of Science

Cyphophthalmids Wait for the Mountain to Come to Them

Carl Zimmer beat me to it. I was planning to announce the recent pettalid work after the paper arrived in the mail last week, but it seems I've been scooped. But because good work always deserves a second look, I'll write on it anyway. Besides, I was at least able to pinch the photo from Carl's site.

Pettalidae are a family of Cyphophthalmi, what are called the mite-like harvestmen. Cyphophthalmids are a fairly small group as far as is known, with probably less than fifty described species, but the number of species has been rapidly increasing in recent years. Though they are divided into about five families, cyphophthalmids are a fairly conservative bunch in appearance - the photo above is of Pettalus cf. cimiciformis*, but it is fairly typical of the group as a whole. They are quite distinct from other harvestmen (in fact, it is generally agreed that they are the sister-group to all others), and rather than having the spindly build of more familiar members of the order, cyphophthalmids are minute, stocky armoured tanks. If you look closely at the picture above, you may see a light spot on either side of the body that looks a bit like an eye, but it is in fact an ozophore - a raised mound bearing the opening of a stink gland. Except for members of the family Stylocellidae, cyphophthalmids have been described in the past as eyeless, but SEM studies of Pettalidae have revealed minute (often lens-less) eyes hidden on the side of the ozophore (Boyer & Giribet, 2007).

*For those who aren't already in the know, the 'cf.' in the name stands for the Latin confer (compare). In this case, it indicates that the animal in question is very similar to Pettalus cimiciformis, but is not definitely a member of that species.

The really interesting thing about cyphophthalmids (beyond their own intrinsic charm, of course) is their distribution patterns. Each of the various families has a definite, disjunct distribution (Boyer et al., 2007). The family Stylocellidae are restricted to south-east Asia. The Sironidae are found in what once was Laurasia - Eurasia and North America. The Neogoveidae are found in Florida, tropical South America and tropical West Africa - the tropical parts of what once was Gondwana. Two genera placed in their own families, Ogovea and Troglosiro, are found in West Africa and New Caledonia, respectively. And Pettalidae has a classic Gondwanan distribution, found in southern South America, southern Africa (including Madagascar), Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand (see Carl Zimmer's post for a map).

I think I should say something here about "Gondwanan" distributions. Science has a tendency to go through fads like any other aspect of human culture. For many years, most organisms showing what we would now call a "Gondwanan" distribution were interpreted as relicts of a former world-wide distribution. As acceptance of "continental drift" and recognition of the previous existence of Gondwana increased, more and more researchers considered its potential significance for modern biogeography. Needless to say, the significance was especially apparent to workers in the southern continents, doubtless not without some aspect of asserting the importance of the all-too-often neglected Southern Hemisphere biota relative to the Northern Hemisphere. Gondwanan origins became the next big thing for everything from birds (Cracraft, 2001) to beeches (Linder & Crisp, 1995) to butterflies (de Jong, 2003). In the last few years, the pendulum has begun to sway the other way, probably towards a more reasonable median.

The idea of a Gondwanan distribution for a given group of harvestmen particularly merits a critical look. The fossil record of harvestmen is pretty abysmal relative to the age of the group, but what record there is speaks of a remarkable degree of morphological conservatism. The Carboniferous long-legged harvestman Brigantibunum is almost indistinguishable from modern taxa (Dunlop & Anderson, 2005). The cyphophthalmid Siro platypedibus Dunlop & Giribet, 2003, from Bitterfeld amber (probably Oligocene or Miocene in age) is so similar to modern species that it is included in a modern genus.

In order to test whether the distribution of Pettalidae is an actual Gondwanan distribution as opposed to a relictual one, Boyer et al. (2007) tested the phylogeny of the family with just about every morphological and molecular method imaginable. They demonstrated that most of the cyphophthalmid families were monophyletic, with distribution matching phylogeny (the exception was the Laurasian Sironidae, which came out paraphyletic to the northern Gondwanan Neogoveidae and Stylocellidae).

To add another level of interest to the whole deal, most of the genera within Pettalidae each have separate geographic distributions (Boyer & Giribet, 2007). Chileogovea in South America, Purcellia and Parapurcellia in southern Africa, Pettalus in Sri Lanka, Karripurcellia in Western Australia, Austropurcellia in eastern Australia. The exception is New Zealand. New Zealand has a remarkable diversity of Pettalidae, with more described species than everywhere else combined, in three genera. But let's look a little closer. In the South Island of New Zealand, the genus Rakaia is concentrated in the east, while the genus Aoraki is found in the west from Mount Cook* north. New Zealand actually lies on the boundary between the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates, and if you were to map the distributions of the genera, you would see that Rakaia is mostly found on the Pacific plate, while Aoraki dominates on the Indo-Australian!**

*The Maori name for which just happens to be Aoraki. Not a coincidence - the genus was named after the mountain.

**I know, I said three genera. The third genus is a single species, Neopurcellia salmoni, in the southwest of the South Island.


Boyer, S. L., R. M. Clouse, L. R. Benavides, P. Sharma, P. J. Schwendinger, I. Karunarathna & G. Giribet. 2007. Biogeography of the world: a case study from cyphophthalmid Opiliones, a globally distributed group of arachnids. Journal of Biogeography, in press.

Boyer, S. L., & G. Giribet. 2007. A new model Gondwanan taxon: systematics and biogeography of the harvestman family Pettalidae (Arachnida, Opiliones, Cyphophthalmi), with a taxonomic revision of genera from Australia and New Zealand. Cladistics 23: 337-361.

Cracraft, J. 2001. Avian evolution, Gondwana biogeography and the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B – Biological Sciences 268: 459-469.

Dunlop, J. A., & L. I. Anderson. 2005. A fossil harvestman (Arachnida, Opiliones) from the Mississippian of East Kirkton, Scotland. Journal of Arachnology 33: 482-489.

Dunlop, J. A., & G. Giribet. 2003. The first fossil cyphophthalmid (Arachnida, Opiliones) from Bitterfeld amber, Germany. Journal of Arachnology 31: 371-378.

Jong, R. de. 2003. Are there butterflies with Gondwanan ancestry in the Australian region? Invertebrate Systematics 17: 143-156.

Linder, H. P., & M. D. Crisp. 1995. Nothofagus and Pacific biogeography. Cladistics 11: 5-32.

1 comment:

  1. My interpretation & usage of "cf." is different. I wouldn't refer to a specimen as Pettalus cf. cimiciformis if I was certain that it was "not definitely a member of that species". In my experience, "cf." is used more like a question mark: Pettalus cimiciformis? to mean "it looks like that species, but we are not sure because there are also differences, compare it to that species, but it may or may not be that species".


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