New light is thrown on turtle evolution

Turtles have a bountiful fossil record filled with well-preserved specimens and dating back to around 200 million years ago: a biologist’s dream. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been given much attention.

A study by Joyce et al. published in BMC Evolutionary Biology in October describes a new fossil from China and revisits how modern day turtles came to be distributed around the world.

The fossil turtle Sichuanchelys palatodentata is peculiar in that it retains the ancestral character of teeth on the palate, although the authors doubt this was useful to the species. This species was found to be part of a now-extinct lineage of turtles which is now starting to come to light.

The seven specimens described were unearthed in Northwest China and date from around 160 million years ago, a time when the landscape was dominated by dinosaurs. They include a skull, shell, as well as bones of the legs and arms of the turtles.

Classifying fossils like that of Sichuanchelys p. allows scientists to reconstruct the geographical history of living groups, which tells us why species are where they are today.

Today, turtles occupy a variety of environments: land, freshwater and saltwater. The ability to tolerate saltwater seems to have evolved multiple times independently, and allows turtles to disperse freely across oceans. This makes it difficult to retrace their evolution.

There are two main groups of turtles: the hidden necked and side necked turtles. The former predominantly occupy the southern hemisphere, while the latter are found in the northern. So how did this come to be?

The old hypothesis was that the two groups diverged on the same landmass and each found themselves better adapted in one hemisphere, while the other went locally extinct.

However, by ignoring the saltwater turtles in their analysis, Joyce et al. saw a different pattern emerge. It turns out to be more likely that the two groups were separated during the break-up of Pangaea, and then evolved in isolation from one another. Furthermore, southern hemisphere deserts could have local barriers to freshwater turtles, driving the diversification of the group.

This study reinforced the presence of now-extinct turtle lineages, ignored in the past. It also cats a new light on extinction, diversification and distribution of the modern turtles. In our current biodiversity crisis, a understanding of these topics is more relevant than ever.

Image: Fossil of Sichuanchelys palatodentata shell dorsal and ventral view.

Article: A toothed turtle from the Late Jurassic of China and the global biogeographic history of turtles. Joyce et al. 2016 (DOI 10.1186/s12862-016-0762-5)

Illegitimate offspring are a better investment for female house wrens

Birds have a reputation for monogamy, but it is often only an appearance. In fact, males and females alike engage in extra-pair copulations in many cases. A recent study set out to find out what’s in it for unfaithful female house wrens.

The benefit of cheating is easy to see for males: their illegitimate offspring gets reared at no expense by another pair in another nest. The rewards aren’t so obvious for the other sex. Females always provide care, and a cuckolded father might even invest less energy in the chicks; not to mention the risk of contracting STDs that comes with mating. Despite this inequality, female birds still cheat on their social mates.

House wrens are small, short-lived, passerine birds that are common throughout North America. Each year, pairs form for the breeding season, the female picking the males she desires. Males and females look alike, so she cannot assess a potential mate’s quality through showy displays or colorful attributes.

The oldest males get cuckolded the most, found the researchers. This is surprising: in the absence of other information, choosy females should consider older males better quality. This is because, well, they’re survived so far. Consistent with this, younger males also get cheated on more than intermediate aged ones.

Older birds produce lesser quality sperm. They make less of it, and it can be less motile and more mutation ridden. The clutches they produce contain fewer chicks with weaker immune systems. So why pair up with old males at all?

It turns out that female house wrens may not be as picky as we think they are. House wrens nest in cavities, and a good territory might be the most important quality for a male (the ones that have one rarely get cheated on regardless of age). However, because she won’t encounter very many mates before the breeding season, a female might just settle for the first one with a decent nesting location and start making chicks. She would then mate with the other males she encounters.

This settling and cheating strategy is a great one. The researchers found that chicks born of female extra pair mating were better quality! They were the most likely to return breeding, making more chicks themselves. Mating is a complex game, but apparently cheating pays off for female birds too.


Source: Bowers et al. 2015. Increased extra-pair paternity in broods of aging males and enhanced recruitment of extra-pair young in a migratory bird. Evolution.

Photo: Wikipedia commons


Alien Australian possums could be helpful, not harmful to recovering ecosystems in New Zealand

Horror stories of an alien species taking over and annihilating diversity in a native ecosystem have become pervasive in ecological news. This happens as our world continues to become more and more interconnected: species are moved around by humans- be it intentional or not. There are the rabbit, cane toad and camel  population sizes exploding in Australia. There are the well established parrot populations of Europe. Countless “weeds” that have pervaded native ecosystems and are thought to cause trouble.

But it could be that alien species aren’t all the bad guys we make them out to be.

This was recently shown a long term experiment on succession after landslides in New Zealand. Ecological succession is what happens when an ecosystem is deeply disturbed and recolonized by a series of plants species, one after the other. Usually mosses, grasses and sedges,”weedy” species that grow fast in poor conditions, are the first to arrive. They are followed by shrubs, then trees until a full, diverse, forest is recovered. Australian opossums introduced to New Zealand in the 1800’s were thought to hurt this process by eating native plants.

Since the possums were introduced by humans to New Zealand, they have grazed on plants that weren’t grazed on before. To see if this was disruptive, a team of researchers set out on an 11-year long experiment, taking advantage of large landslides that destroyed all vegetation in an area of the Western South island in 2002.

The scientists cleverly created plots and introduced the same vegetation in all of them, the only difference being that some of them were caged off: possum proof. They expected to the possum proof areas to  re-vegetate faster, since there would be no inappropriate grazing. However, they were surprised to see the opposite result.

Areas munched on by possums contain more of a “high quality” shrubby plant species: one that can harness nitrogen in the air to use it, also making it available to fellow plants. More plants growing also means more carbon in the ground: more biomass created and stored. Bacteria species are also more abundant and diverse in plots visited by possums. But why? It seems that the possums are grazing on grassy species, freeing up ecological space for the later species in succession. This speeds up the process, aiding in recovery and overall benefitting diversity in the system.

Careful analysis only will allow us to determine whether specific alien species are harmful to ecosystems or not. In a world where we have pervasively modified which species are present where, we should tread carefully in trying to control them. They might actually be reinforcing our efforts to restore the quality of our environment.

Let me know what you think in the comments!


For more on this topic I recommend a great book: The New Wild by Fred Pearce

Article: Bellingham et al. 2016 Journal of Ecology.



What is Natural Selection?

To start at the beginning and lay the foundation for future posts, I am discussing a term familiar to many people, but important to grasp in all of its nuance (I am assuming a very basic understanding of evolution here). So then, what is Natural Selection?

Natural selection is a way in which evolution can happen, with evolution being the change in life forms (or organisms) over time. Darwin wasn’t the first person to suspect that the life that surrounds us (and ourselves) had changed in history, but is contribution was to suggest a mechanism through which it happens: Natural Selection.

What enabled Darwin to figure out how evolution can work was a change in perspective. Instead of thinking about individual organisms, like his predecessors, he envisioned change at the level of groups of organisms. To clarify, as opposed to looking at change during the life time of one organism, he looked at the change in the composition of groups of such organisms (populations) over successive generations. This “simple” shift in thinking led him to one of the greatest and simplest ideas in biology.

Resources are finite on our planet. There is only so much sunlight for plants to share, so much grass to eat, so many prey to consume… Darwin realised this meant that whichever organisms were better at obtaining said resources would survive longer and reproduce more. Those individuals would then pass on the traits that enabled them to do so to their offspring, and over time the composition of the population would shift towards organisms possessing those traits.

Note that this excludes changes that occur during the organism’s lifetime. Evolution by Natural Selection is therefore simply a shift in trait frequency in a population over time. It’s important to note that Natural Selection does not really exist in a sense, it is not a force that acts on species to shape them. To me, this is at once confusing and wonderful: rather, Natural Selection is a property that emerges from each individual’s “struggle for existence”, each individual’s fight to survive and reproduce.

Over time, this “culling” of bad traits and “selection” of beneficial traits will lead to groups of organisms being more and more in tune with their environments, better at exploiting it. This is adaptation by Natural Selection.

Natural Selection implies three properties about the population we are looking at:

That there is variation in the population. Without variation, there can be no change in the frequency of traits.

That this variation affects survival and/ or reproduction.

That this variation is heritable. If the character is acquired throughout an organism’s lifetime but not passed on to future generations, then if there is change in the trait’s frequency it will have nothing to do with Natural Selection.

The simplicity yet complexity of the result of this process is amazing. However, we must delve in much deeper to understand the complexity of life that surrounds us. This process underpins many things that happen in evolution, but things get tricky. I’ll get to some of that in future discussions!

Bye for now,