Field of Science

Showing posts with label Sarcopterygii. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sarcopterygii. Show all posts

Dream-fish, Coelacanths and Super-Predators: The Sarcopterygians

For the subject of today's post, I drew the Sarcopterygii, the 'lobe-finned fishes'. Though something of a poor relation to their considerably more diverse sister-group, the ray-finned fishes of the Actinopterygii, this is a group most of my readers will have probably encountered in some capacity. As their names both formal and vernacular indicate, the Sarcopterygii were originally characterised by the development of the fins as fleshy lobes, with at least some fins possessing an internal skeleton of serial bones. Living sarcopterygians belong to three major groups, the coelacanths, lungfishes and tetrapods (in which, of course, the ancestral fins have been modified into walking limbs). The majority of recent studies have placed the coelacanths as the most divergent of these groups, with lungfishes and tetrapods as sister taxa. As the tetrapods are a particularly tedious group of organisms, with little to interest the casual observer, I'll put them aside for this post (you can go to Tetrapod Zoology if you must). The lungfishes, too, warrant a more detailed look at another time.

The oldest known sarcopterygian (and, indeed, the oldest known crown-group bony fish) is the Guiyu oneiros (shown above in a reconstruction by Brian Choo for Zhu et al. 2009), whose species name suggests the vernacular name of 'dream fish'. The dream-fish is known from the late Silurian of China, with a number of other stem-sarcopterygians such as Psarolepis and Meemannia known from the early Devonian of the same region. These taxa retained a number of ancestral features such as heavy ganoid scales (a type of scale also found in basal actinopterygians), and strong spines in front of the fins. However, crown-group sarcopterygians had also evolved and diverged by the early Devonian, as shown by the presence of the stem-lungfish Youngolepis.

Congregation of West Indian Ocean coelacanths Latimeria chalumnae, photographed by Hans Fricke.

The coelacanths are, of course, best known to most people for the discovery of the living Latimeria chalumnae in 1938 in South Africa, after the lineage had been thought to have become extinct in the Cretaceous. The subsequent media frenzy must have been interesting to fishermen in the area who had long known the coelacanth primarily as an infernal nuisance. Though only captured occasionally as bycatch, a landed coelacanth represents two metres or more of snap-jawed bad temper, while the oily flesh is inedible. More recently, a second species of living coelacanth, Latimeria menadoensis has been described from near Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Because of the circumstances of its discovery, Latimeria became a textbook example of a 'living fossil'. However, all fossil coelacanths were not mere duplicates of Latimeria. To begin with, Latimeria is quite a bit larger than the majority of its fossil relatives (Casane & Laurenti 2013). These included such distinctive forms as the fork-tailed speedster Rebellatrix and the eel-like Holopterygius. And then there was Allenypterus montanus, a Carboniferous taxon that... well, just look at the thing (photo from here):

Though Latimeria may lord it over its immediate relatives, it is far from the largest sarcopterygian (even excluding the tetrapods). The tetrapod stem-group also included a number of large predators, including the famous Eusthenopteron (how many other fossil fish have been referred to by name in an episode of Doraemon?). Particularly dramatic were the Rhizodontida, freshwater ambush predators of the Devonian and Carboniferous. Though probably very low on the tetrapod stem (and hence not directly related to limbed tetrapods), rhizodontids developed enlarged pectoral fins that articulated with the body in a not dissimilar manner to tetrapod forelegs. Like tetrapods, rhizodontids probably used their pectoral fins to push against the substrate and provide explosive propulsion (Davis et al. 2004). The jaw of rhizodontids contained enlarged tusks interspersed among smaller teeth that would have hooked into struggling prey. The largest rhizodontids have been estimated to be about seven metres in length, and were the sort of predator that the term 'apex' was invented for.

Reconstruction of Rhizodus by Mike Coates.


Casane, D., & P. Laurenti. 2013. Why coelacanths are not 'living fossils'. BioEssays 35: 332-338.

Davis, M. C., N. Shubin & E. B. Daeschler. 2004. A new specimen of Sauripterus taylori (Sarcopterygii, Osteichthyes) from the Famennian Catskill Formation of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24 (1): 26-40.

Zhu, M., W. Zhao, L. Jia, J. Lu, T. Qiao & Q. Qu. 2009. The oldest articulated osteichthyan reveals mosaic gnathostome characters. Nature 458: 469-474.

The Tuna-Lizards

The classic ichthyosaur Ichthyosaurus communis, from here.

Ichthyosaurs have long been one of the most famous examples of convergent evolution. These Mesozoic marine reptiles, as any textbook will tell you, evolved a body form similar to that of modern dolphins and sharks, and presumably held a similar niche as fast-swimming apex predators. But interesting as that might be, it's certainly not all there is to be said about ichthyosaurs.

The classic ichthyosaurs that said textbooks will usually depict are members of the clade Thunnosauria that first appeared in the upper Triassic (Thorne et al. 2011). Thunnosaurs differ from other ichthyosaurs in having a relatively short tail, shorter than the trunk, and hindfins that are much shorter than (usually less than half as long as) the forefins (Maisch & Matzke 2000). The name 'Thunnosauria' appropriately means 'tuna-lizards': as with modern tunas, the compact body of the thunnosaurs indicates greater specialisation for more powerful, tail-driven swimming.

Cast of the short-beaked Ichthyosaurus breviceps, from Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

In the Lower Jurassic, thunnosaurs are represented by the genera Ichthyosaurus and Stenopterygius, though the known fossil record for the former is earlier than that of the latter. Both genera are represented by hundreds (if not thousands in the case of Stenopterygius) of known specimens from Europe (Motani 2005): primarily England for Ichthyosaurus, Germany for Stenopterygius. Stenopterygius grew up to 4 m in length; Ichthyosaurus would have been somewhat smaller (Maisch & Matzke 2000). One species of Ichthyosaurus, I. breviceps, stands out for its particularly short and robust rostrum in comparison to other species. Another potential Lower Jurassic thunnosaur is Hauffiopteryx typicus, which also has a distinctively small rostrum, but in this case a particularly fine and slender one (Maisch 2008).

Mounted skeleton of Ophthalmosaurus icenicus, from the British Natural History Museum.

During the Lower Jurassic, the thunnosaurs were among a number of ichthyosaur lineages present. By the time of the Upper Jurassic, all surviving ichthyosaurs (with one possible exception*) belonged to a single thunnosaur lineage, the Ophthalmosauridae. Unfortunately, for most of the Middle Jurassic the ichthyosaur fossil record is missing, and a gap of more than ten million years separates Stenopterygius from Ophthalmosaurus. The only break in this gap is the Argentinan Chacaicosaurus cayi, which sits a few million years later than Stenopterygius. Intriguingly, Chacaicosaurus is not only intermediate in age, it is intermediate in morphology: while its skull is similar to that of Ophthalmosaurus, its forefin is more similar to that of Stenopterygius. As noted by Maisch & Matzke (2000), "It appears as if Chacaicosaurus cayi is one of the rare forms that are true structural intermediates".

*The possible exception is the Upper Jurassic Nannopterygius enthekiodon, some features of which suggest that it occupies a more basal Stenopterygius-grade position (Maisch & Matzke 2000). Unfortunately, it has not yet been adequately described and included in a formal phylogenetic analysis. This is rather frustrating: Nannopterygius promises to be a quite distinctive animal, with greatly reduced fins and long spinal processes on the anterior tail vertebrate.

Reconstruction of Platypterygius bannovkensis, by Olorotitan. Platypterygius was the latest surviving ichthyosaur genus.

The ophthalmosaurids survived from the late Middle Jurassic to the early Upper Cretaceous. Ophthalmosaurus had a slender rostrum with reduced dentition, while other genera such as Brachypterygius and Platypterygius had higher, more robust rostra with their full complement of teeth. Some ophthalmosaurids grew very large: Platypterygius reached up to 9 m. The name Ophthalmosaurus means 'eye lizard', and reference to the large eyes of this ichthyosaur seems to be de rigeur for any popular book in which it features, together with some speculation that it may have been a nocturnal hunter. However, a quick scan through the various ichthyosaur skulls illustrated by Maisch and Matzke (2000) indicates that ichthyosaur eyes were generally large. Those of Ophthalmosaurus were not the largest; the eyes of Eurhinosaurus longirostris are particularly ridiculous, with orbits filling almost the entire side of the cranium! So perhaps the question should not be why Ophthalmosaurus had large eyes, but why those ichthyosaurs without large eyes had reduced them.


Maisch, M. W. 2008. Revision der Gattung Stenopterygius Jaekel, 1904 emend. von Huene, 1922 (Reptilia: Ichthyosauria) aus dem unteren Jura Westeuropas. Palaeodiversity 1: 227-271.

Maisch, M. W., & A. T. Matzke. 2000. The Ichthyosauria. Stuttgarter Beiträge zur Naturkunde Serie B (Geologie und Paläontologie) 298: 1-159.

Motani, R. 2005. True skull roof configuration of Ichthyosaurus and Stenopterygius and its implications. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 25 (2): 338-342.

Thorne, P. M., M. Ruta & M. J. Benton. 2011. Resetting the evolution of marine reptiles at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108 (20): 8339-8344.

Tortoise Resurrection

In a subsequent portion of this narrative I shall have frequent occasion to mention this species of tortoise. It is found principally, as most of my readers may know, in the group of islands known as the Gallipagos... They are frequently found of an enormous size... They can exist without food for an almost incredible length of time, instances having been known wher they have been thrown into the hold of a vessel and lain two years without nourishment of any kind - being as fat, and, in every respect, in as good order at the expiration of that time as when they were first put in... They are excellent and highly nutritious food, and have, no doubt, been the means of preserving the lives of thousands of seamen employed in the whale-fishery and other pursuits in the Pacific.

--Edgar Allen Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

For sailors in tropical oceans before the invention of refrigeration, keeping supplies of food was a serious issue. It was a permanent challenge to keep supplies fresh and edible, and indeed, much of the time stores failed at both. Under such conditions, the giant tortoises of the Galapagos islands and the Mascarenes and other islands in the Indian Ocean would have been seen as nothing short of miraculous. Tortoises could be captured easily and kept in the hold of a boat for extended periods without feeding, only slaughtered when they were actually required for eating. As a result, ships that were in a position to do so often took on tortoises in large number, and Charles Darwin apparently recorded single vessels taking up to 700 individuals at a time. By modern standards the idea of seven hundred starving tortoises crammed into a single hull seems unthinkably cruel, but doubtless the sailors who otherwise faced another six months of decomposing ship's biscuit saw things differently.

Geochelone becki, the Volcano Wolf tortoise. Photo by Joe Flanagan.

Unfortunately, such intense harvesting took an inevitable toll. Tortoise numbers declined rapidly, and many went extinct. Honneger (1981) lists three extinct species of tortoise from the Galapagos (including Geochelone abingdoni from Pinta island, which is technically not yet extinct but which only survives in the form of a single captive male) and at least six extinctions from the Seychelles and Mascarenes. Extinct populations on the Galapagos islands of Rabida and Santa Fe may have represented further undescribed species.

However, a paper published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds a remarkable coda to the history of one of the "extinct" species, the Floreana tortoise Geochelone elephantopus. Using DNA extracted from museum specimens collected on Floreana before the population disappeared, Poulakakis et al. (2008) have demonstrated that G. elephantopus may not be quite as extinct as previously thought. Instead, anomalous genetic haplotypes previously identified in some living individuals of Geochelone becki, a species found on the Volcano Wolf at the northern end of Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos, indicate descent from G. elephantopus. These individuals would appear to be descendants of past hybridisations between native Volcano Wolf tortoises and introduced Floreana tortoises.

Such a situation is quite believable. As a result of the widespread transport of tortoises for food, many tortoises ended up on islands to which they were not native*. Tortoises were regularly imported to Réunion in the Mascarenes after the native population became extinct. Living populations of giant tortoises on the Granitic Islands of the Seychelles probably descend from imports from Aldabra rather than representing the species originally found there (Honegger, 1981). According to Poulakakis et al. (2008), some 40% of the Volcano Wolf tortoises tested showed evidence of Floreana ancestry, so the genetic legacy of Geochelone elephantopus is alive and well, at least in hybrid form.

*Potentially a serious issue for taxonomy, as researchers cannot assume that species names based on inadequate type material necessarily represent the species native to the island the type was collected on. Honegger (1981), for instance, cast doubt on whether Geochelone gouffei, known from a single specimen found on Farquhar Island in the Seychelles, actually originated there.

This still leaves a significant problem - most conservation policies do not cope well with hybrids. A number of species worldwide, such as the black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) in New Zealand, are regarded as endangered because of the risk of hybridisation with related species. The red wolf (Canis rufus) and the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) represent two 'endangered' taxa in the United States for which the suggestion that their histories could have been compromised by hybridisation led to the suggestion that they should be abandoned as worthwhile conservation targets. However, the disappearance or decline of a species in its pure form due to hybridisation with another species is a different proposition from its decline due to replacement by that species. The genetic legacy of the declining species may still persist. Overemphasis on species "purity" may actually hinder the conservation of endangered taxa, especially if natural hybrid zones with related taxa exist in the first place (Allendorf et al., 2001). If there are no purebred Florida panthers, should that mean that there is no place for panthers in Florida?


Allendorf, F. W., R. F. Leary, P. Spruell & J. K. Wenburg. 2001. The problems with hybrids: setting conservation guidelines. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16 (11): 613-622.

Honegger, R. E. 1981. List of amphibians and reptiles either known or thought to have become extinct since 1600. Biological Conservation 19: 141-158.

Poulakakis, N., S. Glaberman, M. Russello, L. B. Beheregaray, C. Ciofi, J. R. Powell & A. Caccone. 2008. Historical DNA analysis reveals living descendants of an extinct species of Galápagos tortoise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105 (40): 15464-15469.

Some History of the History of Tetrapods

Titanophoneus potens, a Permian synapsid (image from Kheper).

Benton, M. J. (ed.) 1988. The Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods. The Systematics Association Special Volume 35A & 35B. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

One interesting thing about comparing different fields of research is the different time-scales we work in when it comes to what constitutes a "recent" publication. As an invertebrate taxonomist, I think nothing of delving into stuff that was written in the 1950s or even earlier. A developmental geneticist is likely to regard anything more than a few years old as ancient history. Vertebrate palaeontology lies between these two extremes, but certainly 1988 was a long time ago for the tetrapods.

As a result, I suspect that Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods can't really tell us much about the current state of tetrapod classification. What does make it interesting, though, is what it says about the state of vertebrate palaeontology at the time. The late 1980s were certainly interesting times, not just in vertebrate palaeontology but in systematics in general. The cladistic revolution was gathering speed. Molecular phylogeny was making its first faltering steps, and challenging a few orthodoxies.

The Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods was published in two volumes, and even that says something about changes in focus since. The second volume was devoted entirely to the mammals (about 5,400 living species). Everything else - amphibians, reptiles, birds, about 24,000 living species - took up only the first volume. Birds in particular warrant a single chapter, as do living amphibians (that latter point possibly hasn't changed much). Dinosaurs (the non-birdy type, that is) barely rate a mention. The dinosaur renaissance was in its early stages at the time - for comparison, Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies, a book I personally don't think much of but which became something of a focal point for changing views on the big lizards, was first published in 1986. (It was also in 1988 that Gregory S. Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs of the World first hit the shelves, in which Paul copped a certain degree of ridicule for his decidedly heterodox reconstructions of dinosaurs covered in feathers - Paul has since, of course, been able to carry around a big bag of harsh words and force his critics on this point to eat them.) Of course, it should be noted that despite its palaeontological bent, ultimately the main focus of Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods is on the relationships between living tetrapods.

Despite all that has changed since then, some parts of Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods seem somewhat prescient. Not so much the molecular chapters - that on molecular phylogenetics of tetrapods as a whole has the grim figure of the Haematothermia clade (birds and mammals to the exclusion of reptiles) rear its ugly head, though the authors at least had the sense to recognise this as probably convergence rather than the actual state of affairs. But the mammalian molecular phylogeny chapter gives us some of the early glimmerings of the Afrotheria hypothesis, though that clade was not to be formally recognised until some years later, while the Novacek et al. chapter on the morphological phylogeny of modern mammalian orders is noteworthy for not finding any support for Ungulata.

The prize for best statement in the book, however, has to go to Gaffney & Meylan's chapter on turtles, where, after a description of the apomorphies connecting turtles to their supposed nearest relatives (the captorhinids, in this case), the authors note "And so we reach God's noblest creature - the turtle".

Relict Frog Sex

At least one piece of genetics that almost everyone is familiar with is how our sex is determined - that women possess two X chromosomes while men produce an X and a Y chromosome. What may not be so familiar to most people is that this system is far from universal. Different animals exhibit a wide range of methods of sex determination, both genetic (like our own system) and environmental (such as temperature in crocodiles). In Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) unfertilised eggs produce haploid males, while fertilised eggs produce diploid females. In birds, it is the females that possess two different forms of sex chromosomes (referred to as W and Z), while the male possesses two Z chromosomes. But perhaps the oddest little tale of sex determination (and one I only discovered recently) involves the strange relictual frog genus Leiopelma (the species Leiopelma archeyi is shown in a photo from the page of Dr. Bruce Waldman).

Leiopelma is a small genus of four living species of frog restricted to New Zealand (a further three species are known from sub-fossil remains - Bell et al., 1998). They represent a basal grade of frogs of which the only other member is the "tailed frog" Ascaphus truei from western North America (different studies disagree as to whether Leiopelma and Ascaphus form the sister clade to or are paraphyletic to all other living frogs - Green & Cannatella, 1993; Hay et al., 1995). Leiopelma and Ascaphus retain a number of primitive features that have been lost in other frogs, such nine vertebrae in front of the sacrum and tail-wagging muscles (though the 'tail' of male Ascaphus is actually the copulatory organ). Leiopelma also lack a tadpole stage in their life-cycle, hatching straight out into froglets.

The really remarkable thing about Leiopelma, though, is that of the four species living today, at least three have different methods of sex determination from each other. And within two of those species, there are even different populations that differ in their mode of sex determination!

The most primitive state is perhaps that shown by Leiopelma archeyi, in which most populations don't have distinguishable sex chromosomes. This is the condition in most amphibians, though it has been shown that even in taxa that don't have heteromorphic chromosomes, sex is still determined genetically (Hayes, 1998). However, a heteromorphic W sex chromosome has been recorded in one population of L. archeyi from Whareorino in the King Country (Green, 2002). In other features (including genetic features) the Whareorino L. archeyi are almost indistinguishable from Coromandel populations that lack the W chromosome.

The Whareorino Leiopelma archeyi are therefore more like L. pakeka in sex differentiation. Leiopelma pakeka also has a female-ZW/male-ZZ set-up (Green, 1988)*. There is only a single population of L. pakeka, restricted to Maud Island, which diesn't give much scope for variation.

*The species Leiopelma pakeka was recognised only recently (Bell et al., 1998). Previously it had been regarded as a population of the genetically distinct but morphologically almost identical L. hamiltoni, and its genetic structure was described under the latter name. Leiopelma hamiltoni proper is uber-rare, with a population of less than 300 individuals restricted to less than one hectare of habitat on Stephens Island, and does not seem to have yet been investigated for sex chromosomes.

The ultimate wierdness, however, comes when we look at Leiopelma hochstetteri. Most populations of L. hochstetteri have a single sex chromosome in females, while males lack a sex chromosome. This female-0W/male-00 system is unique - no other animal has it. Not one. In fact, it's so bizarre that not even all L. hochstetteri have it - females of the population on Great Barrier Island lack the lonely W chromosome, and like Coromandel L. archeyi this population does not have morphologically distinct sex chromosomes (Green, 1994). The Great Barrier population also lacks the non-sex-related supernumerary chromosomes (or "B" chromosomes) found in other populations (Green et al., 1993). B chromosomes are small, seemingly dispensable chromosomes that are found in a broad scattering of taxa. In species where they are found, numbers of B chromosomes can vary significantly within and between populations, probably because their lack of significant function means a lack of selective control on their propagation. This variation is also seen in L. hochstetteri, where up to 15 B chromosomes were found in individuals of five different populations. The variation in chromosomes between populations is shown below in a figure from Green (1994).

So how did all this come about? I am not aware of any other group of closely-related organisms showing this much variation in so few species. However, it is possible to imagine ZW chromosomes evolving through differentiation of morphologically indistinct sex-determining chromosomes, and this is what appears to have occurred in Leiopelma pakeka and Whareorino L. archeyi. Leiopelma hamiltoni appears to be more closely related to L. archeyi than L. pakeka (Bell et al., 1998), so it would be very interesting to know whether or not it has distinct sex chromosomes.

As for Leiopelma hochstetteri, the sister taxon to all other Leiopelma, phylogenetic analysis of chromosome characters shows that the Great Barrier population, without the extra W chromosome, is probably sister to all other populations. Green et al. (1993) suggest that the 0W/00 system could evolved from a ZW/ZZ system. Either the Z chromosome may have been lost, or (as the authors of the latter study think more likely) it could have been duplicated, giving a ZZW/ZZ pattern that would be karyotypically indistinguishable from 0W/00.


Bell, B. D., C. H. Daugherty & J. M. Hay. 1998. Leiopelma pakeka, n. sp. (Anura: Leiopelmatidae), a cryptic species of frog from Maud Island, New Zealand, and a reassessment of the conservation status of L. hamiltoni from Stephens Island. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 28 (1): 39-54.

Green, D. M. 1988. Heteromorphic sex chromosomes in the rare and primitive frog Leiopelma hamiltoni from New Zealand. Journal of Heredity 79 (3): 165-169.

Green, D. M. 1994. Genetic and cytogenetic diversity in Hochstetter's frog, Leiopelma hochstetteri, and its importance for conservation management. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 21: 417-424.

Green, D. M. 2002. Chromosome polymorphism in Archey's frog (Leiopelma archeyi) from New Zealand. Copeia 2002 (1): 204-207.

Green, D. M., & D. C. Cannatella. 1993. Phylogenetic significance of the amphicoelous frogs, Ascaphidae and Leiopelmatidae. Ecol. Ethol. Evol. 5: 233-245.

Green, D. M., C. W. Zeyl & T. F. Sharbel. 1993. The evolution of hypervariable sex and supernumerary (B) chromosomes in the relict New Zealand frog, Leiopelma hochstetteri. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 6 (3): 417-441.

Hay, J. M., I. Ruvinsky, S. B. Hedges & L. R. Maxson. 1995. Phylogenetic relationships of amphibian families inferred from DNA sequences of mitochondrial 12S and 16S ribosomal RNA genes. Molecular Biology and Evolution 12 (5): 928-937.

Hayes, T. B. 1998. Sex determination and primary sex differentiation in amphibians: Genetic and developmental mechanisms. Journal of Experimental Zoology 281 (5): 373-399.

Sooglossidae: Deja vu all over again

Every couple of weeks or so I go into the Western Australian Museum library to look over the new journals and see if anything interesting has come out that I've missed. I did so this morning, and among the papers I noticed was van der Meijden et al. (2007) in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society which established a new genus Leptosooglossus for the frog species previously known as Sooglossus gardineri from the Seychelles (shown above in an adorable image from the Nature Protection Trust of the Seychelles). A second species, Sooglossus pipilodryas, was also transferred into the new genus.

This was all well and good, until a few journals later I came across Nussbaum & Wu (2007) in Zoological Studies which established a new genus Sechellophryne for the frog species previously known as - yep, you know what's coming - Sooglossus gardineri (again, So. pipilodryas was also transferred). Oh dear. Two papers, published very close together in time, coining different names for the same thing.

Before anyone madly leaps to any suspicions, I can't find any obvious signs of plagiarism or claim-jumping in either paper. Both recognised the new genus on the basis of paraphyly of the genus Sooglossus, but van der Meijden et al. only used molecular data, while Nussbaum & Wu only used morphological data. It does seem somewhat incredible that there could be two separate groups of people both working on as small a group as Sooglossidae (only four species restricted to the Seychelles, a small group of islands in the Indian Ocean roughly the size of a postage stamp) and unaware of each other, but I can't find any obvious indications otherwise (if there is any sort of scandal, I'm chucking in a vote that it be referred to as 'Bubblegate'). It is good that the two papers using completely different methods agree so much in their results.

So the next question becomes - which is the correct name to use? The van der Meijden et al. paper was in the July issue of the journal it appeared in, while Nussbaum & Wu appeared in a May issue. So the first round would appear to favour Sechellophryne over Leptosooglossus. However, the cover date of a journal issue is not necessarily identical to the actual print release date, which is what is supposed to determine priority. The online release date for van der Meijden et al. (which may not be identical to the print release date, but is usually at least an indication) is given as 5th July at the journal website. Unfortunately, the website for Zoological Studies doesn't appear to list specific release dates, and there doesn't appear to be one on the paper. If anyone out there in the know is able to confirm the release date for me, I would be quite grateful (it suddenly occurs to me that I should have looked inside the cover or on the table of contents or such of the journal itself, but I'm no longer at the museum and can't do that now - d'oh!). Again, at the moment Sechellophryne appears to be the senior name unless proven otherwise.

Oh, and if you're wondering why Bubblegate, it's a reference to one of my partner's current favourite jokes (warning - PG rating):

Three frogs are brought before the court. As the first frog is taken to the stand, the judge asks the bailiff for his name and crime, to which the bailiff replies, "This is Frog, and his crime is blowing bubbles in the pond". The second frog is taken in, and again the judge asks for his name and crime. The bailiff replies, "This is Frog-Frog, and his crime is blowing bubbles in the pond". The third frog is then brought in, and the judge asks, "I suppose this is Frog-Frog-Frog?" "No," replies the bailiff, "this is Bubbles".


Meijden, A. van der, R. Boistel, J. Gerlach, A. Ohler, M. Vences & A. Meyer. 2007. Molecular phylogenetic evidence for paraphyly of the genus Sooglossus, with the description of a new genus of Seychellean frogs. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 91: 347-359.

Nussbaum, R. A., & S.-H. Wu. 2007. Morphological assessments and phylogenetic relationships of the Seychellean frogs of the family Sooglossidae (Amphibia: Anura). Zoological Studies 46 (3): 322-335.

Taxon of the Week #3: Rana

The taxon that has been chosen to receive the coveted Taxon of the Week spot today is the frog genus Rana. Rana is a large primarily Holarctic genus of frogs, and probably the inspiration for most depictions of frogs in the world (see the page on Wikipedia and linked pages for images). Well-known species are the edible frog (Rana × esculenta - actually not a true species but a hybrid) and the European common frog (Rana temporaria).

I thought I'd look up the info on Rana over lunchtime. Pretty soon, my head was swimming. The genus Rana has been hit with two major investigations in recent years, both of which have received some frosty responses. Frost et al. (2006) in their investigation of the 'Amphibian Tree of Life' divided Rana between more than fifteen smaller genera to remove its previous paraphyly (for instance, the above-mentioned Rana esculenta would become Pelophylax esculentus). As happens with any wholesale name change, there has been quite a bit of outcry at the idea of having to update the filing systems. Also, a number of authors have felt that the number of taxa sampled by Frost et al. was not enough to inspire confidence in their results. The review by Wiens (2007) was particularly vitriolic - the scientific equivalent of attempting to hold the subject down and kick them repeatedly in the teeth. Smith and Chiszar (2006) have suggested the more mollifying approach of treating Frost et al.'s various genera as subgenera, though unless one was willing to accept a paraphyletic genus this would also require sinking some well-established genera such as Staurois within Rana. Division of the genus Rana was also supported by Che et al. (2007).

The other cause of debate was perpetrated by Hillis & Wilcox (2005), who investigated the phylogeny of New World species of 'Rana' (most of which would belong to Lithobates in the Frost et al. system). The problem came when Hillis & Wilcox suggested a whole series of subgeneric taxa for nested groups of species that they defined according to the rules of the PhyloCode, but also allowed for use under the ICZN as subgenera. Debate promptly exploded about whether Hillis & Wilcox's names were validly published and usable (Dubois, 2006, 2007; Hillis, 2007). Compared to this argument, Frost et al.'s division appears quite simple. I may return to this in a later post, if my brain doesn't implode first. Check out the Dubois (2006) paper in particular - Dubois thinks that the answer to our problems is to make the ICZN more complicated. No. Thank. You.


Che, J., J. Pang, H. Zhao, G.-F. Wu, E.-M. Zhao & Y.-P. Zhang. 2007. Phylogeny of Raninae (Anura: Ranidae) inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43 (1): 1-13.

Dubois, A. 2006.
New proposals for naming lower-ranked taxa within the frame of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Comptes Rendus Biologies 329 (10): 823-840.

Dubois, A. 2007. Naming taxa from cladograms: A cautionary tale. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 42 (2): 317-330.

Frost, D. R., T. Grant, J. Faivovich, R. H. Bain, A. Haas, C. F. B. Haddad, R. O. de Sá, A. Channing, M. Wilkinson, S. C. Donnellan, C. J. Raxworthy, J. A. Campbell, B. L. Blotto, P. Moler, R. C. Drewes, R. A. Nussbaum, J. D. Lynch, D. M. Green & W. C. Wheeler. 2007. The amphibian tree of life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 297: 1-370.

Hillis, D. M. 2007.
Constraints in naming parts of the Tree of Life. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 42 (2): 331-338.

Hillis, D. M., & T. P. Wilcox. 2005. Phylogeny of the New World true frogs (Rana). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 34 (2): 299-314.

Smith, H. M., & D. Chiszar. 2006. Dilemma of name-recognition: why and when to use new combinations of scientific names. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 1 (1): 6-8.

Wiens, J. J. 2007. Review: The Amphibian Tree of Life. Quarterly Review of Biology 82: 55-56.