Arxiu d'etiquetes: urodele

Metamorphosis and amphibian larvae

The word amphibian comes from ancient Greek words “amphi”, which means “both” and “bios”, which means “life”. Even if the word amphibious is an adjective used to describe animals that can live both on land and water, in the case of amphibians it also refers to both life stages through which these animals go through, as amphibians are born in an aquatic larval stage and become adults via a process of metamorphosis. In this new entry we’ll explain how metamorphosis works at a hormonal level, which anatomical changes occur during this period and the differences of this process among the different lissamphibian orders.


Metamorphosis is present in the three lissamphibian orders. This process was already present in the first terrestrial tetrapods, which had to lay their eggs in water. Yet not all extant species present external metamorphosis, as some of them hatch as diminutive adults (as 20% of anuran species). In these species metamorphosis happens equally inside the egg before hatching, what’s called internal metamorphosis.

Red-eyed tree frog eggs (Agalychnis callydryas) just before hatching, by Geoff Gallice.

As a general rule, lissamphibians lay their eggs in water. In most species, aquatic larvae will hatch from gelatinous eggs, even if their morphology varies a lot between different species. Yet larvae of all lissamphibians present a set of common characteristics:

  • External gills, thanks to which they can breathe underwater.
  • Absence of eyelids and retinal pigments associated with sight outside of water.
  • Presence of a lateral line (or equivalent), sensorial organ characteristic of fish which allow them to sense vibrations underwater.
  • Thinner skin.
  • Subaquatic anatomic adaptations.
Photo of a fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) in which the external gills and the pisciform looks of the larva can be appreciated, by David López.

During metamorphosis, most structures useful during the larval stage are reabsorbed through apoptosis, a controlled cell death process. In many cases this process is highly conditioned by various environmental factors such as population density, food availability and the presence of certain chemical substances in water.


At the hormonal level, metamorphosis is characterized by the interaction between two kinds of hormones: thyroid hormones and prolactin. While the thyroid hormones as thyroxin (secreted by the thyroid gland) stimulate the metamorphosis process, prolactin (secreted by the pituitary gland or hypophysis) inhibits it. The concentration of these two hormones (regulated by the Hypothalamus→Hyphophysis→Thyroid) is what controls the different stages of metamorphosis.

Scheme by Mikael Häggström of the hypothalamus (green), hypophysis or pituitary (red), thyroid (blue) axis in human beings and the release of thyroid hormones.


This is the larval growth stage, and it lasts around the first 20 days of life (depending on the species). This stage is characterized by a low secretion of thyroidal hormones and by a high concentration of prolactin that inhibits the metamorphosis process. This is due to the fact that the hypothalamus→hypophysis system is still not mature.


It’s a period of reduced growth with slow morphological changes, due to the rise of thyroxin concentration in blood caused by the growth of the thyroid gland. Also, the hypothalamus→hypophysis axis starts developing, which will trigger even more the rise of the thyroxin concentration and will lower the prolactin, giving way to great morphological changes.


It’s the point in which the hyothalamus→hypophysis→thyroid axis is at its maximum capacity and it is when great morphological changes happen in the larva, which will end up becoming a miniature adult. Finally, thyroxin levels will start to be restored by a negative feedback system of the thyroxin over the hypothalamus and the hypophysis.

Scheme from Brown & Cai 2007, about the general levels of thyroid hormones during the different metamorphosis’ stages.


During the metamorphosis process, larvae will go through a set of anatomical changes that will allow them to acquire their adult form. Some changes common to most species are the acquisition of eyelids and new retinal pigments, the reabsorption of the gills and the loss of the lateral line. Other morphological changes vary among the different orders. For example in caecilians (order Apoda) larvae already look like miniature adults but with external gills. Also, most caecilians present internal metamorphosis and the hatchlings have no trace of gills.

Photo from Blog do Nurof-UFC of a caecilian egg, inside which we can see the larva with gills.

In urodeles (order Urodela), the external metamorphic changes aren’t that spectacular either. Larvae are pretty similar to adults, as their limbs develop quickly, although they present external filamentous gills, have no eyelids and present a largely-developed caudal fin. Even their carnivorous diet is similar to that of the adult’s. Yet the great diversity of salamanders and newts gives as a result a great variety of life cycles; from viviparous species that give live birth, to neotenic species that keep larval characteristics through their adult stage.

Photo by David Alvarez of the viviparous birth of a fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), and photo by Faldrian of an axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) a neotenic species.

Frogs and toads (order Anura) are the group in which metamorphic changes are more dramatic. The anuran larva is so different that it’s called a tadpole, which differentiates from the adult both by its looks and its physiology and behaviour. Even if tadpoles are born with external gills, these are soon covered by skin folds that form a gill chamber. Also, tadpoles have a round, limbless body and a long, vertically-flattened tail, which allows them to swim swiftly in water.

Photo by J. J. Harrison of a southern brown tree frog tadpole (Litoria ewingii).

One of the main differences between adult and larval anurans is their diet. While adult frogs and toads are predators, tadpoles are herbivorous larvae, feeding by filtering suspended vegetal particles or by scraping off algae from rocks using a series of keratinous “teeth” present in some species. This is reflected in their spirally-shaped and extremely long digestive system in order to allow them to digest large quantities of vegetal matter. Tadpoles are tireless eating machines, with some filter-feeding species being able to filter eight times their body volume of water per minute.

Photo by Denise Stanley of a tadpole, in which we can see both the keratinous “teeth”, and the spiral-shaped intestine.

After metamorphosis, tadpoles will reabsorb their gills and tail, their digestive system will shorten, and will develop limbs and lungs, becoming small amphibians prepared for a life on land.

Recently metamorphosed spiny toad (Bufo spinosus) by David López.

As we have seen, the metamorphosis process varies greatly among the different species of each order. This process results in the fact that that most lissamphibians spend a part of their lives in water and the other on land, a representative fact of the transition of the first tetrapods from the aquatic to the terrestrial medium. Also, the great diversity of ecological niches occupied by both the adults and the larvae of the different species and the wide array of environmental factors that affect the metamorphosis process, make lissamphibians great bioindicators of an ecosystem’s health.


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


Hybrids and sperm thieves: amphibian kleptons

In biology a hybrid is the result of the reproduction of two parents of genetically different species, although in most cases hybrids are either unviable or sterile. Yet in some species of amphibians, sometimes hybrids are not only viable, but also become new species with special characteristics. In this entry we’ll show you two cases of amphibian hybrids that form what is known as a klepton and that make the definition of species a little less clear.


A klepton (abbreviated kl.) is a species which requires another species to complete its reproductive cycle. The origin of the word klepton comes from the Greek word “kleptein” which means “to steal”, as the klepton “steals” from the other species to reproduce. In the case of amphibians, kleptons have originated from hybridation phenomena. The amphibian’s potent sexual pheromones and the multispecies choirs in the case of anurans, causes some males and females of different species to try to mate together. Yet hybrids are only viable between closely related species.

Among the different klepton species we can encounter two different methods depending on the type of conception: zygokleptons, in which there’s fusion between the egg and the sperm’s genetic material, and gynokleptons, in which the egg needs the stimulation from the sperm but doesn’t include its genetic material.

The different amphibian kleptons are usually constituted entirely by females (there are usually few or no males) that use the sperm of another species to perpetuate the klepton. As some kleptons depend on various related species, this can promote the creation of “species complexes” in which various similar species present hybridization areas and very complicated relationships among them. Below you’ll find two klepton examples, one in European anurans and the other in American urodeles.


The European water frogs (Pelophylax genus) form what is known as a “hybridogenetic complex” in which the hybrids from different species form kleptons which can’t reproduce among each other but, which must reproduce with a member of one of the parental species, “stealing” or “parasitizing” its sperm in order to survive.

Photo by Bartosz Cuber of two edible frogs (Pelophylax kl. esculentus) in amplexus. This is the best known hybrid both because of its wide distribution, and for being considered a delicacy in France.

In the hybridogenesis of water frogs the genetic material of both parents combines to form the resulting hybrid (zygoklepton). This hybrids (almost always females) will have half their genome from one species and half from the other. Yet, not being able to reproduce with a similar hybrid, during gametogenesis the hybrids eliminate the genetic material from one of the parent species. This way, when reproducing with an individual from the species whose genetic material has been deleted, they will form another hybrid.

Scheme of the genetic composition of the different Pelophylax kleptons. In this hybridogenetic complex four “natural” species intervene: the marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus, RR genome), the pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae, LL genome), the Iberian waterfrog (Pelophylax perezi, PP genome)  and the Italian pool frog (Pelophylax bergeri, BB genome).

The edible frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus, RL genome) comes from the hybridization between the marsh frog and the pool frog. The Italian edible frog (Pelophylax kl. hispanicus, RB genome) stems from a hybrid between the marsh frog and the Italian pool frog. Finally, the Graf’s hybrid frog (Pelophylax kl. grafi, RP genome) originated from the hybridization between the edible frog (in which the DNA of the pool frog is eliminated from their gametes) and the Iberian waterfrog.

Schemes by Darekk2 of the hybridogenetic processes in the different European water frog’s kleptons. The bigger circles represent the individual’s genome and the smaller circles the gametes’ genetic material.

As we can see, the genetic information of the marsh frog is the only one present in all three kleptons. These kleptons delete the genetic material of the species with which they share their habitat from their gametes but keep the genetic material of the marsh frog (R). So for example, the edible frog (P. kl esculentus) deletes form its eggs the DNA of the pool frog (L) with which it encounters and breeds in its natural range, resulting in more edible frogs (RL). The marsh frog seldom reproduces with some of its hybrids and if it does, they produce normal marsh frogs.


The salamanders of the Ambystoma genus, usually known as mole salamanders, are a genus endemic of North America and are the only living representatives of the Ambystomatidae family. Five of these species form what is known as the “Ambystoma complex”, in which these species contribute to the genetic composition of a unisexual lineage of salamanders which reproduce by gynogenesis (gynoklepton). Based on the mitochondrial DNA of the unisexual populations, it is thought that this complex originated from a hybridization event of about 2.4-3.9 million years ago.

ambystomert complexx
This complex consists of the five following species: the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale LL genome, photo by Fyn Kynd Photography), the Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum JJ genome, photo by Vermont Biology), the small-mouthed salamander (Ambystoma texanum TT genome, photo by Greg Schechter), the streamside salamander (Ambystoma barbouri BB genome, photo by Michael Anderson) and the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum TiTi genome, photo by Carla Isabel Ribeiro).

In the gynogenesis of this all-female lineage, the egg needs activation by a sperm to start division and development but, it first has to duplicate its genetic material by endomitosis to avoid the formation of an unviable haploid (with half the genetic information) zygote. Yet, as in parthenogenetic reptiles, in the long term the lack of genetic recombination can take its toll on the individuals. That’s why this lineage of unisexual salamanders has the capacity of occasionally incorporating the whole genome from the males of four of the species which constitute the complex (currently the reproduction of streamside salamanders with members of the unisexual lineage hasn’t been documented).

Scheme from Bi, Bogart & Fu (2009) in which we can see the different paths that the gynogenetic mole salamanders can take while reproducing.

These individuals don’t mix the newly acquired genome, they add it. Therefore, among the members of this lineage we can find diploid, triploid, tetraploid and even pentaploid individuals (even if as the ploidy increases the individuals are less apt to survive) depending on how many different genomes the previous generations had incorporated.

mes ibrids
Among the klepton, the most common genome combination is that of triploids based on the blue-spotted salamander and the Jefferson salamander, with the genomes LLJ (left, image by David Misfud) and JJL (right, image by Nick Scobel), even though the number of combinations is incredibly large. For this reason why scientists haven’t been able to decide a valid scientific name for this group of hybrid origins.

Unlike the water frogs, it is very difficult to define a scientific name for the klepton inside Ambystoma, as the genomes of the different species can be found in different combinations and proportions in different unisexual individuals.


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


How to breathe without lungs, lissamphibian style

Even though most terrestrial vertebrates depend on lungs for breathing, lissamphibians also present cutaneous respiration, they breathe through their skin. Even if this may seem a handicap, because they must always keep their skin moist enough, in this entry we’ll see the many benefits that cutaneous respiration gives them and how in some groups, it has completely replaced pulmonary respiration.


Terrestrial vertebrates use lungs to perform gas exchange. While our aquatic ancestors breathed using gills, these are of no use on land, as gravity would collapse them and cause them to lose their form. As lungs are found inside the body, they can keep their form in a habitat with much higher gravity. Both gills and lungs have highly branched structures to increase their diffusion surface, and this way facilitate gas exchange (in a larger surface there’s more exchange).

Giant_Mudskipper_(Periophthalmodon_schlosseri)_(15184970133)Specimen of giant mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri), a fish from southeast Asia which is able to get out of water due, in part, to cutaneous respiration. Photo by Bernard Dupont.

We can find a third form of gas exchange in vertebrates. Even if it’s not as widespread as gills or lungs, cutaneous respiration is found in several groups of animals, such as lunged fish and some marine reptiles (turtles and sea snakes). Yet the lissamphibians are the group that has brought their specialization in cutaneous respiration to the ultimate level.


Present day lissamphibians are the group of tetrapods with the highest diversity of breathing strategies. Apart from cutaneous respiration present in all species, most lissamphibians are born in an aquatic larval stage with gills. After metamorphosis they develop lungs to breathe on land.

The larvae of urodeles and apods present external, filamentous and highly branched gills which allow them to breathe underwater. These must be constantly moved for gas exchange to occur. Some neotenic salamanders maintain their gills during adulthood. On the other hand, anuran tadpoles present internal gills covered by gill pouches.

Salamander_larva_closeupPortrait of a salamander larva in which the branched filamentous gills can be appreciated. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

Most terrestrial lissamphibians present a pair of simple lungs with few ramifications and large alveoli. These have a low gas diffusion rate compared with amniote’s lungs. Also, while amniotes ventilate their lungs using the expansion of the thoracic cavity and the diaphragm, lissamphibians must force the air to their lungs using a buccal-pump system.

Four_stroke_buccal_pumpingScheme of the system of pulmonary respiration of lissamphibians. In the buccal-pump system, the buccal cavity is filled with air and then, elevating the mouth floor, this air is forced to the lungs. Image by Mokele.

Apart from gill and pulmonary breathing, lissamphibians take oxygen to their blood by cutaneous respiration. The skin of lissamphibians is very thin and has a high concentration of capillaries (it’s got a great number of blood vessels). As a result, it has a great capacity of diffusion of gas molecules, allowing cutaneous respiration using a countercurrent system.

600px-ExchangerflowModified scheme of a countercurrent exchange system. In this, deoxygenated blood (with CO2) circulates in the opposite direction that air does (full of O2) and between both fluids the gas interchange happens, in an attempt to equalize the concentration of both gases. Modified image by Joe.

Lissamphibian skin is different from that of amniotes in that it doesn’t present scales, feathers or fur. This makes lissamphibian skin much more permeable to both gases and water (which makes them great bioindicators of the health of their environment, as their skin takes up many different kinds of soluble substances). That’s why lissamphibians must keep their skin relatively moist for the gas exchange to take place.

KammolchmaennchenMale northern crested newt (Triturus cristatus) in its nuptial phase. Its wide tail crests increase the surface of skin also increasing gas diffusion. Photo by Rainer Theuer.

Lissamphibians live constantly in a delicate equilibrium in which the skin must be kept moist enough to allow gas exchange, but not too permeable as to lose water, dehydrate and die. They acheive this living in wet environments, or creating layers of moist skin to create an aqueous ambient around them.

Bombay_caecilianPhoto of a Bombay caecilian (Ichthyophis bombayensis) a lissamphibian which lives in swamps and other humid habitats. Photo by Uajith.

Many lissamphibians present a large quantity of skin, which increase the respiratory surface. Some examples are the vascular papillae of the hairy frog (Trichobatrachus robustus), the skin folds of the frogs of the Telmatobius genus or the wide caudal fins of many newts.

TrichobatrachusGreenDrawing of the hairy frog (Trichobatrachus robustus) where the papillae which gives it its name can be seen. Image extracted from Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1901).

Even though most frogs get most of their oxygen from their lungs during summer, during the colder months (when their metabolism is slower) many species hibernate at the bottom of frozen lakes, conducting their gas exchange solely through their skin.

6887057816_d68fccf4f4_oMany subarctic lissamphibians hibernate underwater, using their skin to extract oxygen from water and expel carbon dioxide from blood. Photo by Ano Lobb.

Adult urodeles present a much higher diversity of breathing strategies, and among them there is one family that is the only group of terrestrial vertebrates that has no trace of lungs.


Inside the suborder of the salamandroideans we find the Plethodontidae family. These animals are popularly called lungless salamanders because, as their name implies, they have no lungs and depend exclusively on their skin to conduct gas exchange.

Kaldari_Batrachoseps_attenuatus_02California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus) photographed by Kaldari. This is a perfect example of the long and thin bodies of plethodontids which facilitate gas diffusion.

These urodeles are distributed mainly through the Americas, with some species in the island of Sardinia and the Korean Peninsula. The most surprising fact about plethodontids is that, like most salamandroids, they are mainly terrestrial animals and do not present an aquatic larval stage. Even though some species present gills during their embryonic development, these are lost before hatching and lungs are never developed.

Northern_red_salamander_(Pseudotriton_ruber)Photo of a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) a plethodontid endemic from the Atlantic coast of the USA. Photo by Leif Van Laar.

It is believed that this family evolved in fast-flowing mountain streams. The presence of lungs would have made them float too much, and this would have made moving much more difficult in such habitats. The cold waters of alpine rivers are rich in oxygen, making cutaneous respiration more than enough for these small animals.

Video by Verticalground100 in which we can see some plethodontid species.

A thin and vascularized skin (facilitates diffusion) and the evolution of long and slender bodies (facilitates the transport of O2 through all the body) made lungs useless for plethodontids. Currently, lungless salamander are the most numerous of all urodele families, and they represent more than half the animal biomass in many North American ecosystems. Also, they are much more active than most lissamphibians, with highly developed nervous and sensory systems, being voracious predators of arthropods and other invertebrates.

3679651745_d678454a1b_oOzark zigzag salamander (Plethodon angusticlavius) a curious lungless salamander common in the state of Missouri. Image by Marshal Hedin.

As you can see lissamphibian cutaneous respiration allows them to make things few tetrapods are able to do. Passing a whole winter underwater and living on land without lungs are some of the incredible feats reserved to a small group of animals. Maybe lissamphibians still depend on the aquatic medium to survive, but as we have seen, they are far from being slow or primitive, as they present some of the most impressive physiological adaptations found on the animal kingdom.


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


Limb regeneration, from the axolotl to human beings

The regeneration of lost or damaged body parts in animals is known from many centuries ago. In 1740 the naturalist Abraham Trembley observed a small cnidarian that could regenerate its head if it was cut off, so he called it Hydra, in reference to the monster from Greek mythology that could grow back its multiple heads if they were cut off. Afterwards, it was discovered that there were many other species of animals with regenerative abilities. In this entry we’ll talk about these animals.

Regeneration in the animal kingdom

Regeneration of body parts is more widespread between the different groups of invertebrates than it is between the vertebrates. This process can be bidirectional, in which both parts of the animal regenerate their missing parts to form two animals (just like the hydra, planarians, earthworms and starfishes) or unidirectional, in which the animal loses an extremity but it just regenerates, without forming two animals (arthropods, molluscs and vertebrates). In vertebrates, fishes and amphibians are the ones that present the greatest regenerative capacities, although many lizards and some mammals are able to regrow their tails.

ch14f01Image by Matthew McClements about bidirectional regeneration in planarians, hydras and seastars. Extracted from Wolbert's Principles of Development.

Regeneration can be done by two different ways:

  • Regeneration without active cellular proliferation or “morphallaxis”. In this type, the absent body part is regrown through remodelling of pre-existing cells. This is what happens in the Hydra, in which lost body parts are regenerated without the creation of new material. So, if a hydra is cut in half, we’ll obtain two smaller versions of the original hydra.
Video about an experiment in which an Hydra has been cut in different pieces. Video by Apnea.
  • Regeneration with cellular proliferation or “epimorphosis”. In this type, the lost part is regenerated via cellular proliferation, it is “newly created”. In most cases, it happens through the formation of a specialized structure called blastema, a mass of undifferentiated cells which appears during phenomena of cellular regeneration.

Almost all groups of animals with regenerative capacities present regeneration with blastema formation. Yet the origin of the blastemal stem cells varies between groups. While planarians present pluripotent (that can differentiate to any kind of cell type) stem cells all along their bodies, vertebrates have specific cells in each type of tissue (cartilage, muscle, skin…) that only regenerate cells of the tissue they come from.

In land vertebrates, lizards and urodeles are the ones that present the most powerful regenerative abilities. Down below we’ll see how they regenerate and the applications it has in modern human medicine.

Expendable tails

When you are a small animal that is being chased by a cat or any other predator, it probably is better for you to lose your precious tail than to lose your life. Some terrestrial vertebrates have evolved following this philosophy, and they are able to shed off their tails voluntarily through a process called caudal autotomy. This allows them to escape from their predators, which are entertained with the still moving lost tail.

 Video in which we can see how some lizards like this red-tailed vanzosaur (Vanzosaura rubricauda) have brightly coloured tails to attract the attention of predators. Video by Jonnytropics.

Autotomy or self-amputation, is defined as a behaviour in which the animal can shed off one or more body parts. Caudal autotomy is found in many species of reptiles and in two species of spiny mouse of the genus Acomys. In reptiles we can find caudal autotomy in lacertids, geckos, skinks and tuataras.

Acomys.cahirinus.cahirinus.6872Foto of a Cairo spiny mouse (Acomys cahirinus), a mammal which is able to shed and regrow its tail. Photo by Olaf Leillinger.

In reptiles, the fracture of the tail happens in specific areas of the caudal vertebras which are naturally weakened. The autotomy may happen in two different ways: intravertebral autotomy, in which the vertebra at the centre of the tail have transversal fracture planes prepared to break if they are pressed hard enough, and intervertebral autotomy, where the tail breaks between vertebras by muscular constriction.

0001-3765-aabc-201520130298-gf03Tridimensional model of the fracture planes on the tail of a lizard and the regeneration post-autotomy of a cartilaginous tube. Image extracted from Joana D. C. G. de Amorim et al.

Caudal autotomy allows the animal to escape, but it isn’t without cost. Many reptiles use their tails as a reserve of fat and losing this energy store is usually detrimental for the animal. That’s why many lizards, once the threat has disappeared, look for their lost tail and eat it, to at least regain the energy it had as fat. In addition, regenerating a new tail requires a great expenditure of energy.

DSCN9467Photo of a Catalonian wall lizard (Podarcis liolepis) that has shed its tail. Photo by David López Bosch.

The regeneration of the tail in reptiles differs from that of amphibians and fishes in that it happens without the formation of a blastema and instead of an actual regeneration of the caudal vertebras, it forms a cartilaginous tube along it. The new tail is stiffer and shorter than the original one, and it usually regenerates whole some weeks after the amputation. Most lizards can regenerate their tails multiple times, but some species like the slow worm (Anguis fragilis) can only do it once. Sometimes, the original tail isn’t completely broken but the regeneration mechanisms are activated, which can lead to lizards and geckos with more than one tail.

056 (2)Detail of the tail of a common wall gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) which has regenerated the tail without losing its original tail. Photo by Rafael Rodríguez.

Urodeles, the kings of regeneration

Of all tetrapods, amphibians are the ones that present the more astonishing regenerative capacities. During the larval stage of most species, both the tail and the limbs (if they have them) can be regenerated after its loss. The scientific community thinks that this is due to the fact that in amphibians the development of limbs and other organs is delayed until the moment of metamorphosis. Yet, frogs and toads (anurans) only maintain their regenerative powers during their tadpole stage, losing them when reaching adulthood.

Wood_frog_tadpoleWood frog tadpole (Rana sylvatica) which, like all amphibians, delays the development of its legs up to the moment of metamorphosis. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.

Instead, many salamanders and newts (urodeles) conserve their regenerative powers their whole life. Even if many species present caudal autotomy, unlike lizards urodeles are able to completely regenerate, not only their tails, but practically any kind of lost body tissue. Of all known species, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), a neotenic amphibian which reaches adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis, has served as a model organism for the study of the formation of the blastema that precedes regeneration.

 Video about the axolotl, this curious amphibian which is greatly endangered. Video by Zoomin.TV Animals.

Regeneration as it happens in salamanders has stages genetically similar to the ones that occur during the development of the different body tissues and organs during the embryonic development of the rest of vertebrates. In the axolotl (and in the rest of urodeles) regeneration of a limb after amputation goes through three different stages:

  • Wound healing: During the first hour after the amputation, epidermal cells migrate to the wound. The closing of the wound usually completes two hours later with the same mechanisms as in the rest of vertebrates. Yet, the complete regeneration of the skin is delayed up until the end of the regeneration.
  • Dedifferentiation: This second phase, in which the blastema is formed, starts 24 hours after amputation. This is composed both of cells from the specialized tissues of the amputated zone which lose their characteristics (they obtain the capacity to proliferate and differentiate again) and cells derived from the connective tissue that migrate to the amputation zone. When these cells of different origins accumulate and form the blastema, the cellular proliferation starts.
  • Remodelling: For the third stage to start, the formation of the blastema is required. Once the blastema is formed by different dedifferentiated cells, the formation of the new limb follows the same pattern as any kind of vertebrate follows during embryonic development (it even has de same genes intervening).
A_Stages_of_zebrafish_caudal_fin_regeneration_as_longitudinal_sections.Diagram about the formation of the blastema in a zebrafish (Danio rerio) another model organism. Image from Kyle A. Gurley i Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado.

Recently fossils have been found from many different groups of primitive tetrapods which present signs of regeneration. Proof has also been found of limb regeneration in temnospondyl (Apateon, Micromelerpeton and Sclerocephalus) and lepospondyl (Microbrachis and Hyloplesion) fossils. This wide variety of basal tetrapod genera presenting regeneration and the fact that many fish also present it, has led many scientists to consider if the different groups of primitive tetrapods had the ability to regenerate, and if it was lost in the ancestors of amniotes (reptiles, birds and mammals).

Photo of an axolotl, by LoKiLeCh.

However, it is believed that the genetic information that forms the blastema could still be found in the DNA of amniotes but in a latent state. Of the three stages of the regeneration process, the only one exclusive to urodeles is the dedifferentiation stage, as the healing stage is the same as in the rest of vertebrates and the remodelling stage is like the one during embryogenesis. Currently many studies are being carried out on the way to reactivate the latent genes that promote the formation of the blastema in other vertebrates, such as humans.

Some human organs like the kidneys and the liver already have some degree of regenerative capacities, but thanks to investigation with stem cells in animals like salamanders and lizards currently it is able to regenerate fingers, toes, genitals and parts of the bladder, the heart and the lungs. As we have seen, the different animals able to regenerate amputated limbs hold the secret that could save thousands of people. Remember this the next time you hear that hundreds of species of amphibians and reptiles are endangered because of human beings.



During the writing of this entry the following sources have been consulted: