Arxiu d'etiquetes: taxonomy

Where do names of species come from?

All known living beings have names that allow us to recognize and classify them. However, only scientific names are valid for scientific purposes. Who does assign these names? Has it been always done the same way? And the most important: is there any rule when assigning a name to an organism?

Previously in All you need is Biology, we talked you about classification and phylogeny of organisms. Now, we bring you the answers to all these questions about nomenclature and taxonomy. Keep reading and you will discover some curiosities!  

The value of scientific names

If someone asks us what a dog or a cat is, of course all of us will know the answer. However, these names are not useful from a scientific point of view (despite biologist use them assiduously), especially when making studies and publishing papers. Common names (such as ‘dog’ or ‘cat’) are not constant: every language, every country, even every region, has their own terms to refer to their organisms. Even sometimes they change through time or are used to appoint different organisms (e.g. the red panda, which is near to mustelids, and the giant panda, a bear, don’t belong to the same family despite being called pandas).

As you see, using only common names in science could put you in trouble. If someone publish that has performed a study about reproduction of macaw populations, we could not know of which species they are talking about; the common name of this bird varies among some countries; moreover, there exist different species of macaws. Thus, the study does not make sense without context.

So, the use of scientific names in science is very important: they are constant worldwide (we avoid translation problems) and refer only to one organism with no ambiguity.

Currently, designation of scientific names follows the binomial nomenclature, that is, a scientific name of a species is composed by two terms: the genus (an upper level of classification than the species) and the specific epithet or name (and not the species, as some people tend to confuse). While the first term has validity by its own, the second one only has it if is preceded by the genus.

Thus, and keeping with the example above, the macaws from this study actually belong to the genus Ara, but there are different related species of macaws belonging this genus (Ara ararauna, Ara glaucogularis, Ara militaris…).

Macaw of the species Ara ararauna. Picture by Ralph Daily, CC.

However, how has the way biologists assign names changed through the time?

Linné, the father of binomial nomenclature

For a long time, biologists have tried to classify and give names to every living being they discover. The science of defining and naming groups of organisms according to their shared features is known as taxonomy.

In the beginning, there was not a clear consensus for naming the species. For the first ‘taxonomists’ it was of a big importance to classify and identify poisonous and medical plants, of which there are ancient documents wrote by Egyptians more than 3000 years ago.

The first person who started to formally classify organisms was Aristotle (384-322 AC). He was the first to differentiate between animals and plants, besides starting the classification of organisms according to their ‘parts’: four legs, warm body, etc.

During the Middle Age and the beginning of the Modern Age, most of scientists followed the Aristotle’s system of classification. Thanks to the improving of observing tools, such as the development of the first optical lenses during XVI and XVII centuries, some biologists started to improve their descriptions, and eventually abandoned this system.

However, among taxonomist still didn’t exist a formal consensus for assigning names. Before the instauration of the binomial system, species were named with a term (the genus) followed by a specific epithet or name composed by one or more words which described the species. This system, known as polynomial system, gave room to really long names such as ‘Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti‘. Of course, this was not an optimum system.

During XVI and XVII centuries, Caspar Bauhin made the firt steps to simplify this system, sometimes shortening species names to just two terms. However, it was the Swedish botanical Carl von Linné (or Carolus Linnaeus) who formalized the use of the binomial nomenclature in his publication Species Plantarum (1753). Since then, species were given a name composed only by two terms: the genus and a trivial name designated by its descriptor; e.g., Panthera tigris (tiger).

Carl von Linné. Public domain.

The establishment of this system was favored by three reasons:

  • Its economy: there are needed only two words to identify a species with no error.
  • Its diffusion and general use by scientists, who standardize them and promote their use.
  • Its stability: scientists try to preserve the original name of an organism even if its classification changes through time.

How to name an organism: the nomenclature codes

Taxonomy and nomenclature are two different but inseparable concepts. While taxonomy is the science of describing and classifying organisms, nomenclature is the tool that allows taxonomists to assign names to those organisms.

In 1758, Linné stated the basis for an objective classification of species in the 10th edition of one of his most famous publications, Sistema Naturae:

  • Each species must have an own scientific name, unique and universal.
  • When a species is given more than one name by different scientists, the oldest one must prevail.
  • Scientific names are composed by two Latin or Greek terms: the first one corresponds to the genus and the second one, to the species belonging this genus.
  • The first letter of the genus must be written in upper case, while the specific epithet or names must be written in lower case. Moreover, both terms must be written in italic or underlined.
Cover of the 10th edition of Sistema Naturae. Public Domain.

Nomenclature has been getting more and more complex over the years. Nowadays, there are international codes of nomenclature for every group of organisms, like the ICZN (International Code of Zoological Nomenclature) or the ICN (International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants), amongst others. Taxonomist from each branch must obey their own codes when naming an organism.

Two of the most important rules when giving a name are the validity and the availability of the name. Let’s imagine we discover a new species of wasp of the genus Polistes: in one hand, the name (Polistes x) must be available, that is, it must accomplish the needed requirements to be assigned to our species. These requirements are gathered in the international codes, which are based on the Linné’s criteria. Moreover, a name is available when it is accompanied by a formal (published) description. Availability of a name can change under certain circumstances; e.g., a name considered unavailable can be available again if is republished following the code’s criteria.

In the other hand, a name must be valid, that is, it must have not been used to designate another organism, or considered invalid. For example, two taxonomists one before the other describe the same species and give it different names; in this case, the valid name would be the oldest one, so the second one would become a junior synonym according to the priority principle, thus getting invalid for its use.

When giving names gets out of hand…or not

Usually, when giving name to a species taxonomists get inspired by specific features of the organism (Dosidicus gigas (giant squid)), its native location (Synergus mexicanus (gall wasp from Mexico)) or in honor to relatives or other scientists.

However, nomenclatural world is full of curiosities, from scientists that give extravagant names to their species to the ones that get inspired by their favorite characters or TV shows:

  • There exists a genus of moths called La (by Bleszynski, 1966). Its ambiguity with the feminine article ‘La’ in Spanish (‘the’ in English) makes search engines go crazy. Moreover, some of the species belonging this genus were given names like La cerveza, La cucaracha or La paloma (literally, ‘The beer’, ‘The cockroach’ and ‘The dove’ in Spanish, respectively).
  • While some taxonomists give species short names, others prefer them longer: Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus, Rhodophthalmokytodermogammarus and Siemienkiewicziechinogammarus are genera of amphipods from the Baikal lake given by the naturalist Dybowski. For sure he had much fun with this!
  • During a long time, it was a common practice to use specific epithets and names to insult other scientists (e.g. stupidus). Fortunately, this is currently prohibited.
  • Abra cadabra, Aha ha, Attenborosaurus (dinosaur genus given after the naturalist David Attenborough), Acledra nazgul, Desmia mordor (in honor to the Lord of the Rings), amongst others.

It is important to note that the international codes try to avoid this kind of names; but it is still funny! If you haven’t had enough, take a look to this list. It will not disappoint you!

.           .           .

Do you still think naming an organism is an easy task?

References

Main picture property of Irene Lobato Vila (author of this post) took at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C., EUA).

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Cutting up dinosaur’s evolutionary tree

For more than 130 years dinosaurs have been classified into two distinct orders, the saurischians and the ornithischians. But as it is common in biological sciences, every theory is true until the opposite is proved. A new study has called into question classical dinosaur classification, destroying and redistributing some of the different dinosaur groups. Even if this new hypothesis isn’t 100% sure yet, in this entry we’ll explain what this dinosaur reordering consists in.

TRADITIONAL DINOSAUR CLASSIFICATION

Since the XIX century, dinosaurs have been divided into two large orders based on their hip anatomy. The order Saurischia (lizard-hipped) includes theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs and current birds) and sauropodomorphs (large, long-necked herbivores); the order Ornithischia (bird-hipped) includes ornithopods (herbivorous and duck-billed dinosaurs), marginocephalians (dinosaurs with horns and hardened skulls) and thyreophorans (armored dinosaurs).

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Traditional dinosaur evolutionary tree by Zureks, with the two different hip morphologies at the bottom.

Yet, this classification doesn’t have the last word. Palaeontology is an extremely volatile science, as with each new discovery, you can dismantle everything you knew at that moment, even if it’s a centenary-old hypothesis. This is what has recently happened with dinosaurs.

THE RISE OF A NEW HYPOTHESIS

A new study published in March 2017, has caused the reconsideration of traditional dinosaur classification. Many previous studies assumed the Saurichia/Ornithischia classification as true and so, the used characters and taxons were all focussed on this classification. However, this new study has pioneered in many aspects:

  • It includes a larger number of species and taxons (many more than in previous investigations).
  • Previous studies gave more importance to basal theropod and sauropodomorph dinosaurs (traditional saurischians), as they were the first dinosaurs to diversify, including few basal ornithischians.
  • It has also included many dinosauromorph archosaurs (non-dinosaur taxons).
  • Older studies had assumed many ornithischian characters to be symplesiomorphies (ancestral characters of all dinosaurs) and they only focused on a few synapomorphies (characters found in a monophyletic group).

This study has detached from many of the previous assumptions on dinosaur phylogeny and has analysed a large number of species and many characters not included in previous investigations. This has made the resulting evolutionary tree pretty different from the ones obtained before.

RESHAPING THE TREE

Then, how does the dinosaur’s evolutionary tree stand according to this hypothesis? Well, the matter is somewhat complex, even if the different groups are still divided in two orders:

  • Order Saurischia which, according to this study, only includes sauropodomorphs and herrerasaurids (a group of carnivorous, non-theropod saurischians).
  • The new order Ornithoscelida (bird-limbed) that includes the traditional ornithischians and theropods, which are no longer saurischians.

Keeping this in mind, let’s now see the characteristics that define these two orders.

Saurischians

The order Saurischia is almost the same, except that theropods are no longer part of this group. This order presents the original saurischian hip structure, which the dinosaurs’ ancestors also had. According to this new hypothesis,  herrerasaurids and sauropodomorphs are all included as saurischians.

Herrerasaurids (Herrerasauridae family) were a small group of basal saurischians that evolved towards meat-eating. That’s why for a long time it was thought that they were the sister-taxon of theropods, but it was later seen that they were found among the first saurischians. Even if they were pretty specialized, they were probably displaced by competition with other predators, appearing during the middle Triassic and becoming extinct at the end of it.

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Photo by Brian Smith of a Herrerasaurus skeleton and model, from the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago.

Herrerasaurids occupied a similar ecological niche as theropods. The new hypothesis implies that hypercarnivory (feeding exclusively on meat) evolved independently twice in dinosaurs, which makes some palaeontologist question it. Yet the herrerasaurid and theropod anatomy differed in some aspects, such as the anatomy of their hands (more generalistic in herrerasaurids) and the jaw structure.

The first sauropodomorphs were biped animals just like herrerasaurids, even if they were omnivorous. Yet, sauropodomorphs would end up becoming huge herbivorous quadrupeds with characteristic long necks.

thecodontosaurus-antiquus-skeleton1-min
Thecodontosaurus skeleton (by Qilong), a basal sauropodomorph and a reconstruction of Plateosaurus (from Walters, Senter & Robins) a more advanced one. Even if it cannot be appreciated in this image, sauropodomorphs would increase very their size very much during their evolution (Thecodontosaurus 2 metres, Plateosaurus up to 10 metres).

Ornithoscelidans

The new dinosaur order is Ornithoscelida, which groups theropods with ornithischians. This taxon is supported by more than twenty skeletal synapomorphies (derived characters shared by a clade), present both in basal theropods and ornithischians. Some of these characteristics include the presence of a gap between premaxillar and maxillar teeth (diastema) and the fusion of the ends of the tibia and the fibula into a tibiotarsus (even if these characteristics are only found on the most basal species).

ornithoscelida-min
Scheme from Baron et al. (2017) of the skulls of two basal ornithoscelidans, Eoraptor (a theropod, top) and Heterodontosaurus (an ornithischian, bottom).

Both theropods and the first ornithischians were bipedal animals. Also, the presence of heterodont teeth in the ancestral members of both groups leads us to think that the first ornithoscelidans were omnivorous, which would later specialise in feeding on meat and on plants (theropods and ornithopods respectively).

Daemonosaurus-face-min
Reconstruction of the face of Daemonosaurus, one of the first theropods, by DeadMonkey8984.

A curiosity about the new classification is that accepting Ornithoscelida as a valid taxon, all feathered dinosaurs are put together into one group. Everyone knows that many theropods presented feathers (as they were the ancestors of birds) but, what most people don’t know is that feathers have also been found in some basal ornithischians and in more advanced ones too.

Kulindadromeus_by_Tom_Parker-min
Reconstruction by Tom Parker of Kulindadromeus, a ornithischian which feathers have been proved to be present on most of its body.

KEEP INVESTIGATING

Then, is this hypothesis irrevocable? Well, no of course. Even if it’s pretty tempting to assume that the dinosaur’s natural history has been changed, we cannot say that from now on dinosaurs will be classified this way.

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Dinosaur evolutionary tree according to Baron et al. (2017), in which we can see the different clades; Dinosauria (A), Saurischia (B) and Ornithoscelida (C).

Even if this study shows really interesting results about the origin of dinosaurs, we cannot dismiss hundreds of previous studies about this group of animals. We’ll have to remain alert to new articles that step by step will keep unveiling more information about the relationships between these Mesozoic reptiles. And that’s what’s so stimulating about biology, that there’s nothing sure! And that with new investigation techniques and new discoveries, little by little we learn more about the world around us.

Keep your mind open and keep investigating!

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

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The Loch Ness Monster and Yeti: Do they exist?

The Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, Chupacabras, Bigfoot, Kraken… we’ve all heard about them once and we even doubted their (in)existence. What is the truth about these creatures? Are they real? If not, what answers gives science to refute it? Find out in this article.

CRYPTOZOOLOGY

Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience, uses scientific terms but is based on beliefs rather than evidence and does not use the scientific method. It tries to find animals that have not been confirmed by science, called cryptids. Usually are beings appeared in myths and legends, but also extinct species that it ensures they have been seen at present, as the thylacine or dinosaurs (non-avian ones). You just have to do a search in internet to find fake photos that won’t mislead the most gullible person, but when the stories are installed in the collective memory, supporters of cryptozoology increase.

sirena, juan cabana, sirena real, mermaid, real
The siren of Maracaibo, an internet viral cryptid. Despite being a sculpture of Juan Cabana, some people still believe in these fake beings. Photo: unknown

Cryptozoology usually tries to add features of real animals to cryptids to make them more credible, and even appropriates of the species discovered by biology (zoology), like when they say the Kraken is actually a giant squid.

THE LOCH NESS MONSTER

Nessie it is the most famous cryptid, a gigantic aquatic animal which is supposed to live in Loch Ness in Inverness, Scotland. As with all cryptozoological beings, evidence of their existence are fuzzy pictures and testimonies of sightings. Surely you’ve ever seen the most famous photo of the Monster:

 nessi, 1934, photo of the surgeon, the loch Ness monster, loch ness, monster
The first photo of Nessie, shot in 1934, was considered (and is considered) an evidence of their existence. 60 years after, Chris Spurling confessed that it was a fraud. Photo: Marmaduke Wheterell

This one, like all photos of the monster, have been proved to have been farces and frauds. However, they continue to fuel the myth: the annual profit in this part of Scotland are of several million euros. It is  not surprising that many lakes around the world have their own monster like Nahuelito, Caddy, Champ, Manipogo, Ponik …

WHY THE LOCH NESS MONSTER CAN’T EXIST ?

  • Its age: the first reference of a being in this lake dates back to 565. So today it would be… 1451 years old, much more than the oldest known animal: Ming the clam (507 years old). Or even more, as some cryptozoologists argue that it could be a plesiosaur or a similar animal (extinct over 65 million years ago) about 20 meters long and 10-20 tons.

     Loch Ness, otter, elephant
    Or maybe it was just an otter… Photo: Jonathan Wills
  • Origins: if it was an animal from the Age of Dinosaurs, or their descendants, it is impossible to have always lived in the lake, which was frozen since the last Ice Age until about 12,000 years ago. There are no ways of connection within the lake and the sea, there are no sightings of the montser outside the lake, so ti could never go out to the sea to feed, for example.  Assuming also Nessie was an aquatic reptile, his preference would be subtropical waters, not the cold waters of Inverness (6 ° C on average).
  • Family of Nessies: the only possible explanation for the continued existence for thousands or millions of years, is that there are no one, but at least 100 individuals like Nessie to keep a viable population, according to population ecology. The minimum viable population is the smallest isolated population having 99% chance to stay alive for 1000 years (Shaffer, 1981). In addition, the Loch Ness is 56.4 km long and 226 m deep, there is an obvious lack of space for all of them (in addition to that sightings would constant).
  • Lack of corpses: in the case that there was a group of plesiosaurs, sooner or later their bodies should appear in the bank and no one single corpse has been found.

    Elephant swimming. In 1933, the year with more sighntinghs, a circus toured the area. Its elephant apparently bathed in the lake several times. Photo: Jeremy Tucker
  • Insufficient food: the lake is deep, long and narrow (32 km x 1.6 km). As the base of the food chain on Earth are plants, in aquatic areas are phytoplankton, algae and plants that can sustain herbivores and carnivores. Loch Ness has a little surface area exposed to the sun, so do not get enough sunlight to do a massive photosynthesis. In addition, the water is dark because has turf in suspension, preventing the existence of light from a few meters depth. It is so unproductive that it could not survive a predator of more than 300 kilos. Obviously, there are few animals that are totally insufficient  for feeding one or more animals of 20 tonnes.

    cadena trofica, red alimenticia, xarxa tròfica,
    Food chain of a freshwater environment. The arrows indicate the direction of energy from one link to another. Picture: unknown
  • Lack of evidence with the latest technologies: BBC has tracked the lake several times with sonar and satellite navigation technology with negative results. Neither mini-submarines or 24 hours webcams have found no sign of the monster.

    THE YETI, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN

    The second most famous cryptid is a giant bipedal ape living in the Himalayas. Or in North America (Bigfoot), Canada (Sasquatch) Almasty (Russia), Hibagon (Japan), Yowy (Australia)… Like Nessie, Bigfoot moves millions of euros/dollars and each country has its own. Also is suggested that could be some kind of extinct hominid, a Neanderthal, a  Homo erectus or a Gigantopithecus .

    yeti, huella, footprint, petjada
    Photograph which revived the legend of the Yeti (1951). Photo: Eric Shipton

    As with all cryptids, evidences are based on eyewitness sightings, blurry photos or with doubtful origin. But in this case there are hair samples ensuring that belong to the Yeti. What science says ?

    DNA ANALYSIS

    The current understanding of genetics has allowed us to establish a more precise family relationships and identify living beings through analysis of DNA. So Bryan Sykes (Oxford University) led a study that analyzed more than 30 hair samples preserved in Buddhist temples, museums and private collections. Result: horsehair, bison, human, raccoon, cow, wolf, coyote… but none of the Yeti .

    The good news for zoology is that two hair samples match the DNA of a polar bear fossil, which could belong to a bear species unknown until now or a variety of polar bear of another color (golden-brown).

    PAtterson-gimlin film, bigfoot
    The most famous photo of Bigfoot is a snapshot of a video taken by Patterson-Gimlin

    THE CHUPACABRAS

    The Chupacabras (“goat-sucker”) is supposed to be a creature that kills and sucks the blood of farm animals without spilling a drop. Definitions are multifarious, bright red eyes, scales, bipedal, spikes on the back… also alleged dead Chupacabras are reported:

    mexico chupacabras
    The alleged chupacabras carcasses are usually canines with scabies who have lost hair, raccoons, or in this case a flying fox. Photo: unknown

    The Chupacabras has the distinction of operating in latin countries: Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Chile… The alleged habitat of chupacabras clashes with biogeography: a branch of science that studies the distribution of living beings on our planet .

    Knowing a basics of biological evolution and climate we can think like biogeographers: species are distributed according to their habitat and have adapted to the different areas and climates. No one would think of a frog living in the Sahara desert, for example. But Chupacabras seems to not care: inhabits a huge variety of landscapes between two continents and several islands, but of course, has a predilection for Spanish-speaking places. Nothing to do with biology: it is the product of a legend of oral tradition.

    ZOOLOGY VS CRYPTOZOOLOGY

    In conclusion, zoology is the branch of biology that to certify that it has discovered a new species must:

Classification and phylogeny for beginners

In this blog, we usually use therms related with the classification of living beings and their phylogeny. Due to the difficulty of these therms, in this post we will explain them for those who are introducing to the topic. 

INTRODUCTION

Before introducing in the topic, it is necessary to explain two concepts, which are usually confused: systematics and taxonomy.

Systematics is the science of the classification and reconstruction of phylogeny, it means that is responsible for reconstructing the origin and diversification of a taxon (unit that we want to classify, such as a species, a family or an order).

On the other hand, taxonomy is the study of the principles of scientific classification, the order and the name of organisms.

In other words, while systematics is responsible for creating systems of classification, which are represented by trees, taxonomy establishes the rules and methods to identify, name and classify each species in the different taxonomic categories based on systematics.

ABOUT SPECIES AND BEYOND

We cannot begin to talk about how to classify species without knowing what is a species and other classification levels of organisms.

WHAT IS A SPECIES?

Along history, it has been given several definitions to the concept species with different approaches.

  • Morphological concept of species: a species is a group of organisms with fix and essential features that represent a pattern or archetype. This concept is totally discarded nowadays, despite morphological features are used in guides to identify species.
INFO-BALLENA
Despite all guides use morphological features to identify species, morphological concept of species is not used (Picture: Revista Viva).
  • Biological concept of species: a species is a group of natural populations which reproduce among them and reproductively isolated and have their own niche in nature. So, a species has common ancestry and share traits of gradual variation.  This definition has some problems: it is only applicable in species with sexual reproduction and it is not applicable in extinct species.
  • Evolutionary concept of species: a species is a single lineage of ancestor-descendent populations that maintains its identity in front of other lineages and has its evolutionary tendencies and historical destination. This approach and the biological one are, in fact, complementary because they are talking about different phenomenons.
  • Phylogenetic concept of species: according to this point of view, a species is an irreducible group of organisms, diagnostically distinguishable from other similar groups and inside which there is a parental pattern of ancestry and descendants.  This point of view covers sexual and asexual reproduction.
ensatina_phylogeny
According to the phylogenetic definition of species, A, B and C are different species. In the C group, all of them are the same species with different types (Picture: Sesbe).

BEYOND SPECIES

Species are classified into a hierarchical system based on more taxonomical categories. From the highest to the lowest category, organisms can be classified in: Domain> Kingdom> Phylum> Class> Order> Family> Genus> Species> Subspecies> Variety> Form. 

We are giving an example: imagine dogs.  Dogs, like wolf, are included in the same species: Canis lupus, but dog is the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris. The naming of a species is its genus (Canis) followed by the specific epithet (lupus). The other taxonomical categories of dogs are: Eukarya Domain, Animal Kingdom, Chordata Phylum, Vertebrata Subphylum, Mammalia Class, Carnivora Order and Canidae Family.

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Dogs and wolfs are included in the same species, but they are different subspecies (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).

HOW IS TREE OF LIFE RECONSTRUCTED?

To reconstruct tree of life, it is the relationships between living and extinct species (phylogeny), we use traits. Traits are features of organisms that are used to study the variation inside a species and among them.

To reconstruct the phylogeny, it is used the shared traits among different taxa. We have to distinguish two types of similarity: when similarity of traits is a result of a common lineage is called homology, while when it is not the result of common ancestry is known as homoplasy.

Probably, it will be easier to understand it with an example. The wings of owls and quails are similar because they have the same origin (homology), but the wings of insects, birds and bats, despite they have the same function, they do not have the same origin (homoplasy).

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The wings of insects, birds and bats are an homoplasy (Picture: Natureduca).

There are three types of homoplasy:

  • Parallelism: the ancestral condition of a variable trait (plesiomorphic) is present in the common ancestor, but the derived state (apomorphic) has evolved independently. An example is the development of a four-cavity heart in birds and mammals.
  • Convergence: in this case, the homoplastic trait is not present in the common ancestor. The structures originated by convergence are called analogy. An example is the wings of insects and birds.
  • Secondary loss or reversion: consist on the reversion of a trait to a state that looks ancestral. So, it looks and old state but, in fact, is derived.
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Biological parallelism, convergence and reversion (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).

There are different types of traits that are used to order living beings: morphological, structural, embryological, palaeontological, ethological, ecological, biochemical and molecular.

Species that share derived states of a trait constitute clades and the trait is known as synapomorphy. Synapomorphies are traits that were originated in a common ancestor and are present in that ancestor and all its descendants. So, mammary glands are a synapomorphy of mammals.

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Mammary glands are a synapomorphy of mammals (Picture: Tiempo de éxito).

After the selection of traits, the several classification schools use them in different ways to get the best relationship between living beings.

REFERENCES

  • Notes of the subject Advanced Biology Basics, Degree in Biology (University of Barcelona).
  • Hickman, Roberts, Larson, l’Anson & Eisenhour (2006). Principios integrales de zoología. Ed. McGraw Hill (13 ed).
  • Izco (2004). Botánica. Ed. McGraw Hill (2 ed).
  • Shnek & Massarini (2008). Biología. Ed. Médica Panamericana (7 ed).
  • Vargas (2009). Glosario de Cladística: Introducción a la sistemática filogenética.
  • Cover picture: Tree of life mural, Kerry Darlington

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Spinosaurus: the first aquatic dinosaur?

Recently, the BBC documentary series “Planet Dinosaur” has premiered on TVE2. In this series the latest paleontological discoveries concerning the biology of dinosaurs are explained. On my last entry we talked about the theropod dinosaurs, one of which is the spinosaur, one of the largest predators that have ever existed. On this entry I’m going to explain some of the facts that paleontology has revealed about the lifestyle of this creature.

TAXONOMY

The spinosaur (scientific name Spinosaurus aegyptiacus) belonged to the Spinosauridae family, a group of specialized theropods which appeared during the late Jurassic and became extinct about 93 million years ago during the late Cretaceous. This group was characterized by being relatively large theropods, with conic teeth and long snouts similar to crocodiles, and elongated neural spines through its back forming a sail-like structure (that’s where the name Spinosauridae comes from, meaning spine reptiles).

Spinosauridscale
Comparition of the different sizes of various spinosaurids by Scott Hartman. From right to left: Irritator challengeri, Baryonyx walkeri, Suchomimus tenerensis and Spinosaurus aegyptiacus.

Some of the more famous members on this family are, the Baryonyx from Europe, which had long curved claws on its hands to capture the fish it fed on, similar to its close relative the Suchomimus from northern Africa. Furthermore, there was the smaller Irritator of about 3 metres tall found in Brasil and finally, the Spinosaurus from northern Africa, which measuring between 12 and 18 metres long and wheighing between 7 and 20 tons, was one of the biggest predators to ever walk on land.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION

The genus Spinosaurus was distributed in the zone of what is now the north of Africa. This genus lived during the Cretaceous, appearing about 112 million years ago and disappearing about 97 million years ago.

94_mya_Texas_Geology
Map of the World 94 million years ago by Joshua Doubek, during the middle Cretaceous period.

During that period, the northern part of Africa was a very humid zone with high temperatures and lots of wetlands. Spinosaurs probably lived in areas with large rivers and mangrove forests next to the sea, where tidal movements flooded its habitat during certain seasons of the year. This is in accordance with the vision that spinosaurids preferred wet semiaquatic habitats with plenty of great fish to prey upon.

Spinosaurus1DBa
Reconstruction from 2010 of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus by Dmitry Bogdanov.

Currently there are two possible spinosaur species. The most famous is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus from Egypt, the species of which we have more information. A possible second species is Spinosaurus maroccanus from Morocco, which some authors consider simply as a subpopulation of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus.

FUNCTION OF NEURAL SPINES

Spinosaurs were discovered in 1912 from a fossil which included its characteristic dorsal spines. These spines grow up to a length ten times that of the vertebra from which they emerged.

The scarcity of spinosaur fossils means that the function of the spines is still a mystery for science, although there are some hypothesis. One of these is that the spines formed a “sail” along the back of the animal which was highly irrigated and helped the animal’s thermoregulation, as such a big animal probably would have had problems losing heat. Therefore its sail would have helped the spinosaur to evade overheating, orienting it towards fresh winds to cool down.

Subadult_Spinosaurus
Reconstruction of the skeleton of a subadult spinosaur (Japan Museum, photo by Kabacchi).

Another hypothesis tells us that the spines held a hump-like structure similar to that of camels, which the animal would have used as a fat reserve system to store fat to withstand periods with little available feeding resources.

Lots of paleontologists think that both hypothesis could be correct and that the spinosaur used the sail both to regulate its body temperature and also to store fat to resist periods of low prey abundance. It is also possible that the sail made the spinosaur appear bigger than it actually was and that they used it during mating rituals similar to those of the modern peacock.

FEEDING STRATEGIES

The Spinosaurus‘s skull shows adaptions to a piscivorous diet. The snout is longer and slender than on other theropods. Aside from this, observing the snout of Spinosaurus it has been seen that it presents a series of little holes similar to those found on crocodiles. It is thought that these structures indicate the presence of pressure receptors which helped them detect the movement of their preys underwater.

Spinosaurus
Upper jaw of Spinosaurus from the Museo di Storio Naturale di Milano, where the holes which possibly contained the pressure receptors can be seen.

While the teeth of most carnivorous theropods where curved and serrated on their posterior part to tear flesh, spinosaur teeth were conic in shape and had no serration, more similar to those of crocodiles. These teeth were more useful for catching and holding fast and slippery prey and to prevent them from escaping (for example, a fish). Also, various Spinosaurus fossils have been found to have between their theeth scales and bones of large prehistoric fish which probably populated many rivers during the Cretaceous period.

new_mawsonia_by_hyrotrioskjan-d5qjb39
Reconstruction by Joschua Knüppe of two Mawsonia species, the rests of which have been found between the teeth of Spinosaurus.

Nevertheless, it is generally believed that the spinosaur was probably an opportunistic predator, feeding mainly on fish, also hunting small dinosaurs when it had the opportunity and stealing prey from smaller predators using its great size to intimidate them.

POSTURE AND LIFESTYLE

Spinosaurs have traditionally been represented as bipedal animals, as most similarly-sized theropods have. Eventhough most fossils are actually pretty incomplete, it is known that its forelegs were more developed than in most theropods, having long curved claws.

Traditionally it was thought that Spinosaurus hunted in a manner similar to a grey heron, roaming through zones of shallow water, sinking its long snout underwater to detect prey using the pressure receptors, and catching fish with its jaws. It then, probably used its front legs as hands to tear its prey to small pieces easy to swallow.

spinosaurus_by_hyrotrioskjan-d5ate1h
Reconstruction by Joschua Knüppe of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus in hunting posture.

At the end of 2014 a new Spinosaurus fossil was discovered which has changed the view we had on this animal. For the first time, scientists found a fossil which shows the structure of the hind legs of this dinosaur and they have observed a number of characteristics not found in any other theropod not even in other spinosaurids. This fossil shows that the hind legs of Spinosaurus were much more massive than those of other theropod dinosaurs, in which the bones are usually hollow to make them more agile (like present day birds). Also, in this fossil the hind legs are actually much shorter in relation to the size of the animal than in any other theropod, leading some scientists to think that Spinosaurus was actually a quadrupedal animal. This has made some paleontologist think that maybe the lifestyle of the spinosaurs was much more similar to that of a crocodile and that they spent much more time living in water than on land, making the Spinosaurus the first known aquatic dinosaur.

spinosaurs_aegyptiacus_2014_by_rodrigo_vega-d7zj8yn
Reconstruction by Rodrigo Vega of Spinosaurus based on the skeleton found in 2014.

Anyway, many paleontologists argue that the biology of a species cannot be based on a single fossil and advise caution when generalizing to the whole species (the fossil could belong to an adult and a juvenile that died together or could even come from an individual which had suffered some kind of embryonic malformation that kept its legs from developing normally). Paleontology is a science in which with every new discovery we can unravel the tree of life and the evolution of the different groups of living beings. With a little of luck, future discoveries will enable us to clarify the anatomy of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and define the lifestyle of such a unique and extraordinary reptile.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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