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Ecophysiological steps of marine adaptation in extant and extinct non-avian tetrapods.

  • Author(s): Motani, Ryosuke
  • Vermeij, Geerat J
  • et al.

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Marine reptiles and mammals are phylogenetically so distant from each other that their marine adaptations are rarely compared directly. We reviewed ecophysiological features in extant non-avian marine tetrapods representing 31 marine colonizations to test whether there is a common pattern across higher taxonomic groups, such as mammals and reptiles. Marine adaptations in tetrapods can be roughly divided into aquatic and haline adaptations, each of which seems to follow a sequence of three steps. In combination, these six categories exhibit five steps of marine adaptation that apply across all clades except snakes: Step M1, incipient use of marine resources; Step M2, direct feeding in the saline sea; Step M3, water balance maintenance without terrestrial fresh water; Step M4, minimized terrestrial travel and loss of terrestrial feeding; and Step M5, loss of terrestrial thermoregulation and fur/plumage. Acquisition of viviparity is not included because there is no known case where viviparity evolved after a tetrapod lineage colonized the sea. A similar sequence is found in snakes but with the haline adaptation step (Step M3) lagging behind aquatic adaptation (haline adaptation is Step S5 in snakes), most likely because their unique method of water balance maintenance requires a supply of fresh water. The same constraint may limit the maximum body size of fully marine snakes. Steps M4 and M5 in all taxa except snakes are associated with skeletal adaptations that are mechanistically linked to relevant ecophysiological features, allowing assessment of marine adaptation steps in some fossil marine tetrapods. We identified four fossil clades containing members that reached Step M5 outside of stem whales, pinnipeds, sea cows and sea turtles, namely Eosauropterygia, Ichthyosauromorpha, Mosasauroidea, and Thalattosuchia, while five other clades reached Step M4: Saurosphargidae, Placodontia, Dinocephalosaurus, Desmostylia, and Odontochelys. Clades reaching Steps M4 and M5, both extant and extinct, appear to have higher species diversity than those only reaching Steps M1 to M3, while the total number of clades is higher for the earlier steps. This suggests that marine colonizers only diversified greatly after they minimized their use of terrestrial resources, with many lineages not reaching these advanced steps. Historical patterns suggest that a clade does not advance to Steps M4 and M5 unless these steps are reached early in the evolution of the clade. Intermediate forms before a clade reached Steps M4 and M5 tend to become extinct without leaving extant descendants or fossil evidence. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the evolutionary history of marine adaptation in many clades. Clades that reached Steps M4 and M5 tend to last longer than other marine tetrapod clades, sometimes for more than 100 million years.

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