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13-million-year-old ‘storyteller’ crocodylian fossils show evidence for parallel evolution

The 13-million-year-old fossils of an extinct crocodylian, named ‘the storyteller,’ suggest that South American and Indian species evolved separately to acquire protruding, ‘telescoped’ eyes for river-dwelling, according by Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi from the University de Montpellier, France, and colleagues.

The gavialoids are a diversified group of mostly extinct long-snouted crocodylian species. Many of the evolutionary relationships between these species remain unclear; fossils of extinct gavialoids from South America and the extant Indian gharial gavialoid have similar telescoped eyes, but it was not known how these features evolved.

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The authors of the present study examined Peruvian fossils from a 13-million-year-old South American species, the oldest known gavialoid crocodylian from the Amazon, which they named Gryposuchus pachakamue after Pachakamue, a pre-Hispanic South American ‘storyteller’ god thought to have knowledge about the origins of South American life. The fossils were dated as Middle Miocene and came from the Pebas Formation, which was likely made up of swampy waterways, suggesting that the crocodylian had a river-dwelling lifestyle. It had only slightly telescoped eyes. The researchers conducted phylogenetic and morphometric analysis to assess the likely evolutionary development of the protruding telescoped eyes of Indian and South American species.

Time calibrated phylogenetic tree of the Gavialoidea and relevant paleogeographic distributions associated with the evolution and diversification of gavialoids in marine and freshwater settings. During the Late Paleocene-Early Eocene interval, peaks of sea surface temperature (SST) and global sea surface level (GSL) occurred together with tropical marine connections through the Tethys Ocean and Caribbean Sea [59,60]. During the Neogene, distinct biomes dominated tropical South America: (A) Acre Phase, after the onset of the eastern-draining Amazon and northward-draining Orinoco river systems; and (B) Pebas Mega-Wetland System, with its drainage northward to the Caribbean Sea. Abbreviations: Olig., Oligocene; Ple., Pleistocene; Pli., Pliocene. Global and South American schematic paleogeography adapted from Blakey [60] and Hoorn et al. [61], respectively. CREDIT Salas-Gismondi et al.
Time calibrated phylogenetic tree of the Gavialoidea and relevant paleogeographic distributions associated with the evolution and diversification of gavialoids in marine and freshwater settings. During the Late Paleocene-Early Eocene interval, peaks of sea surface temperature (SST) and global sea surface level (GSL) occurred together with tropical marine connections through the Tethys Ocean and Caribbean Sea [59,60]. During the Neogene, distinct biomes dominated tropical South America: (A) Acre Phase, after the onset of the eastern-draining Amazon and northward-draining Orinoco river systems; and (B) Pebas Mega-Wetland System, with its drainage northward to the Caribbean Sea. Abbreviations: Olig., Oligocene; Ple., Pleistocene; Pli., Pliocene. Global and South American schematic paleogeography adapted from Blakey [60] and Hoorn et al. [61], respectively.
CREDIT : Salas-Gismondi et al.
Their analysis suggested that the ‘storyteller’ crocodylian with slightly telescoped eyes represents the ancestral condition from which the South American lineage evolved telescoped eyes. The eyes therefore evolved in parallel in South American and Indian lineages, at first showing partial telescoping as in the ‘storyteller’ crocodylian, and eventually becoming fully telescoped as seen in later-evolving species. Both South American and Indian species adopted a river-dwelling lifestyle, and it is likely that telescoped eyes were adaptive, helping them to catch fish in these habitats.

Although further research is needed, thibs study may further our understanding of both the ‘storyteller’ crocodylian and the evolution of all gavialoid crocodylians.

Access to the freely available paper: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152453

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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