How amphibians crossed continents: DNA helps piece together 300-million-year journey

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By Science Daily

There are more than 7,000 known species of amphibians that can be found in nearly every type of ecosystem on six continents. But there have been few attempts to understand exactly when and how frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians have moved across the planet throughout time.

Armed with DNA sequence data, Alex Pyron, an assistant professor of biology at the George Washington University, sought to accurately piece together the 300-million-year storyline of their journey.

Dr. Pyron has succeeded in constructing a first-of-its-kind comprehensive diagram of the geographic distribution of amphibians, showing the movement of 3,309 species between 12 global ecoregions. The phylogeny — or diagram of evolutionary relationships — includes about half of all extant amphibian species from every taxonomic group.

“There have been smaller-scale studies, but they included only a few major lineages and were very broad,” Dr. Pyron said. “What we needed was a large-scale phylogeny that included as many species as possible. That allows us to track back through time, not only how different species are related, but also how they moved from place to place.”

His findings, which appear in the journal Systematic Biology, suggest that, contrary to popular belief, certain groups of amphibians may have swam long distances from one landmass to another within the past few million years.

Biologists have long hypothesized the distribution of extant lineages of amphibians has been driven by two major processes: vicariance and dispersal.

Vicariance occurs when a population is separated following a large-scale geophysical event. After the fragmentation of supercontinent Pangaea and the subsequent split of the Laurasian and Gondwanan landmasses, certain groups of amphibians were able to “hitch a ride” from one continent to another, Dr. Pyron explained. The researcher’s biogeographic analysis supports this hypothesis, showing that continental movement can explain the majority of patterns in the distribution of extant species of amphibians.

Dr. Pyron also found that dispersal during the Cenozoic Era (66 million years ago to the present), likely across land bridges or short distances across oceans, also contributed to their distribution.

Given their ancient origin, it is unsurprising that the history of amphibians is a mixture of both vicariance and dispersal. But the third and final distribution pattern that Dr. Pyron notes in his study was an unexpected finding.

Past studies have assumed that long-distance over water dispersal was essentially impossible for amphibians due to salt intolerance. However, when Dr. Pyron began completing his analysis, he noticed a number of cases of distribution that could not be explained by old age.

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