Wednesday, September 16, 2009

That snake with a leg...?

There's been a report of a snake with a legs and toes in the media recently. The blogosphere has some interesting comments on it, too. Most notably, there is skepticism. Take a look at our snake in question here:



In a comment on Pharyngula, Jerry Coyne notes:
I suspect that this snake ingested a lizard, and that the lizard's limb simply burst through the side of the snake. I may be wrong, and I hope so, because this is great evidence for evolution.

Some graphic images below the fold illustrate why this is not unreasonable speculation.

Snakes sometimes consider their prey choices poorly. Here's a snake with legs and two tails:




(Hat tip to Febble)





Oops! I sort of skipped the first comment at Pharyngula. This commenter noted first that it was probably something the snake ate. Moreover, they note a fact I forgot to mention in my haste: the limb is quite far from where we'd expect the hindlimb to be, if one were to show up. It would be much closer to the tail, not at mid-length of the body. It should be at approximately the same level as the cloaca. There's the unlikely case that it's an atavistic forelimb however, which would raise the issue of where a snake's neck begins or ends.
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Rampant paraphyly on Wikipedia

I've just been having a look at some of the Wikipedia pages about certain bony fish groups, particularly Sarcopterygii and Rhipidistia. These need some serious fixing. There's a lot of stuff out there about 'ancestral groups'. That is to say, describing a group as the ancestor of another group.

"Tetrapods — four legged[sic] vertebrates were the terapodomorphs'[sic] descendants."

"Rhipidistia is now understood to be an ancestr for the whole of Tetrapoda."

The notion that a group is 'ancestral' is a bit misleading, especially if we accept that groups (i.e. clades) are actually the descendents of a single common ancestor. That's not really the problem, though.

Let's look at each of the quotations below the fold.

The first one claims that tetrapods descended from tetrapodomorphs. The actual meaning of 'Tetrapodomorpha' is the tetrapod total group (Ahlberg, 1991). By definition, this group includes all tetrapods, and any and all fossil taxa that are more closely related to tetrapods than to any other extant group (in this case, probably lungfishes: the Dipnomorpha). Tetrapods are a subset of Tetrapodomorpha, not descendents of them.

The second quotation is similar. Ahlberg (1991) also re-defined 'Rhipidistia' cladistically as the Dipnomorpha + Tetrapodomorpha. In this sense, Rhipidistia is monophyletic. However, the Rhipidistia was a pre-cladistic grouping meant to encompass porolepiforms and 'osteolepiforms'. Porolepiforms (probably a real clade) and the 'osteolepiforms' (not a real clade) represent an assemblage of lobe-finned fishes that would look quite similar to an 'untrained observer'. This similarity is mostly just shared primitiveness. That is, it does not unite them to the exclusion of other taxa (namely lungfishes in the case of porolepiforms; and tetrapods in teh case of 'osteolepiforms').



Figure 1. Some 'rhipidistian fishes'. Top: Holoptychius. Bottom: Eusthenopteron along with an illustration of its pelvic and pectoral fin endoskeletons.

What is significant about 'rhipidistians' in the classical sense (i.e. before Ahlberg's 1991 paper) is that they lack synapomorphies or homologies. They have to be defined on the basis of a set of characters and character absences, implicit and explicit, that is hand picked to exclude other groups. They are 'fishes', meaning they have fins (not digits) with lepidotricia, bony dermal rays. But these are also found in the early tetrapods Ichthyostega and Acanthostega. However, these latter taxa lack an intracranial joint, a division of the front part of the braincase from the back part that contains the ear capsules. Coelacanths also have this division, but they are not rhipidistians. However, coelacanths lack the dermal skull bone characters, such as a maxilla, that are found in 'rhipdidistians' such as Eustheonopteron and Holoptychius showing in Figure 1., above.

As you can see, it quickly becomes obvious how the defining characters are arbitrary, in some sense. They are picked to justify a group of taxa that share some overall similarity. It does not reflect an attempt to discover the hierarchical relationships among characters. This latter process is the discovery of homology: the characters that unite monophyletic groups. It is in this way that real evolutionary relationships are discovered; not through the nomination of "ancestral groups".



Ahlberg, P.E. 1991. A re-examination of sarcopterygian interrelationships, with special reference to the Porolepiformes. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 103: 241-287.

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Brief update

This week, I've been working on my presentation for this year's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Bristol. The conference is next week and I've got my own talk, plus contributions to another talk and a poster. Unfortunately, I can't post details of my talk until after the meeting, because the abstract is embargoed. This year looks somewhat promising. There was a record number of abstract submissions, so a lot of the papers that focused on strict descriptive alpha taxonomy did not make the cut. I'm quite happy with that, to be honest. I don't really need to travel a long way to see talks on descriptions of new animals when, in a few months, I can read and use the paper. I'm a bit more interested in seeing progress on sorting out the relationships of problematic taxa, and maybe learning about novel uses for fossils. There's some promising stuff this year.

Spent part of last week on holiday in Prague. One of the great things about living in Europe is the short distance to all these great places.


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Friday, September 04, 2009

Oh no! Silence again?

No. I just have family visiting this week and haven't spent much time close to the computer. Instead, I've been guiding half-assed historical tours of Berlin, visiting museums and the aquarium, etc. etc.

I was unaware before yesterday that the Berlin Zoo actuall has a live, captive Tuatara. These poor beasts are on the verge of extinction, something they are often credited with dodging for over 220 million years. That's not exactly true, of course, because modern Sphenodon are not identical to fossil ones, but nevertheless they are the last surviving representatives of that extinct clade.
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