Development of the vertebrate skull has been studied intensively for more than 150 years, yet many essential features remain unresolved. One such feature is the extent to which embryonic derivation of individual bones is evolutionarily conserved or labile. We perform long-term fate mapping using GFP-transgenic axolotl and Xenopus laevis to document the contribution of individual cranial neural crest streams to the osteocranium in these amphibians. Here we show that the axolotl pattern is strikingly similar to that in amniotes; it likely represents the ancestral condition for tetrapods. Unexpectedly, the pattern in Xenopus is much different; it may constitute a unique condition that evolved after anurans diverged from other amphibians. Such changes reveal an unappreciated relation between life history evolution and cranial development and exemplify 'developmental system drift', in which interspecific divergence in developmental processes that underlie homologous characters occurs with little or no concomitant change in the adult phenotype.
There is an emerging consensus that undergraduate biology education in the United States is at a crucial juncture, especially as we acknowledge the need to train a new generation of scientists to meet looming environmental and health crises. Digital resources for biology now available online provide an opportunity to transform biology curricula to include more authentic and inquiry-driven educational experiences. Digitized natural history collections have become tremendous assets for research in environmental and health sciences, but, to date, these data remain largely untapped by educators. Natural history collections have the potential to help transform undergraduate science education from passive learning into an active exploration of the natural world, including the exploration of the complex relationships among environmental conditions, biodiversity, and human well-being. By incorporating natural history specimens and their associated data into undergraduate curricula, educators can promote participatory learning and foster an understanding of essential interactions between organisms and their environments.
The small size and apparent external morphological similarity of the minute salamanders of the genus Thorius have long hindered evolutionary studies of the group. We estimate gene and species trees within the genus using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from nearly all named and many candidate species and find three main clades. We use this phylogenetic hypothesis to examine patterns of morphological evolution and species coexistence across central and southern Mexico and to test alternative hypotheses of lineage divergence with and without ecomorphological divergence. Sympatric species differ in body size more than expected after accounting for phylogenetic relationship, and morphological traits show no significant phylogenetic signal. Sympatric species tend to differ in a combination of body size, presence or absence of maxillary teeth, and relative limb or tail length, even when they are close relatives. Sister species of Thorius tend to occupy climatically similar environments, which suggests that divergence across climatic gradients does not drive species formation in the genus. Rather than being an example of cryptic species formation, Thorius more closely resembles an adaptive radiation, with ecomorphological divergence that is bounded by organism-level constraints.(c) 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 109, 622-643.
Phenotypic variation is a prerequisite for evolution by natural selection, yet the processes that give rise to the novel morphologies upon which selection acts are poorly understood. We employed a chemical genetic screen to identify developmental changes capable of generating ecologically relevant morphological variation as observed among extant species. Specifically, we assayed for exogenously applied small molecules capable of transforming the ancestral larval foregut of the herbivorous Xenopus laevis to resemble the derived larval foregut of the carnivorous Lepidobatrachus laevis. Appropriately, the small molecules that demonstrate this capacity modulate conserved morphogenetic pathways involved in gut development, including downregulation of retinoic acid (RA) signaling. Identical manipulation of RA signaling in a species that is more closely related to Lepidobatrachus, Ceratophrys cranwelli, yielded even more similar transformations, corroborating the relevance of RA signaling variation in interspecific morphological change. Finally, we were able to recover the ancestral gut phenotype in Lepidobatrachus by performing a reverse chemical manipulation to upregulate RA signaling, providing strong evidence that modifications to this specific pathway promoted the emergence of a lineage-specific phenotypic novelty. Interestingly, our screen also revealed pathways that have not yet been implicated in early gut morphogenesis, such as thyroid hormone signaling. In general, the chemical genetic screen may be a valuable tool for identifying developmental mechanisms that underlie ecologically and evolutionarily relevant phenotypic variation.