Identify characteristics of reptiles
Reptiles are tetrapod animals in the class Reptilia. This class includes today’s turtles, crocodilians, snakes, amphisbaenians, lizards, tuatara, and their extinct relatives. The study of these traditional reptile orders, historically combined with that of modern amphibians, is called herpetology.
In more recent years, scientists have discovered that some reptiles are more closely related to birds than they are to other reptiles (e.g., crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to lizards). For this reason, many modern scientists prefer to consider the birds part of Reptilia as well.
- Identify the characteristics of reptiles
- Explain the difference between the clades of reptiles
- Discuss the evolution of reptiles
Characteristics of Reptiles
Reptiles are tetrapods. Limbless reptiles—snakes and other squamates—have vestigial limbs and, like caecilians, are classified as tetrapods because they are descended from four-limbed ancestors. Reptiles lay eggs enclosed in shells on land. Even aquatic reptiles return to the land to lay eggs. They usually reproduce sexually with internal fertilization. Some species display ovoviviparity, with the eggs remaining in the mother’s body until they are ready to hatch. Other species are viviparous, with the offspring born alive.
One of the key adaptations that permitted reptiles to live on land was the development of their scaly skin, containing the protein keratin and waxy lipids, which reduced water loss from the skin. This occlusive skin means that reptiles cannot use their skin for respiration, like amphibians, and thus all breathe with lungs.
Reptiles are ectotherms, animals whose main source of body heat comes from the environment. This is in contrast to endotherms, which use heat produced by metabolism to regulate body temperature. In addition to being ectothermic, reptiles are categorized as poikilotherms, or animals whose body temperatures vary rather than remain stable. Reptiles have behavioral adaptations to help regulate body temperature, such as basking in sunny places to warm up and finding shady spots or going underground to cool down. The advantage of ectothermy is that metabolic energy from food is not required to heat the body; therefore, reptiles can survive on about 10 percent of the calories required by a similarly sized endotherm. In cold weather, some reptiles such as the garter snake brumate. Brumation is similar to hibernation in that the animal becomes less active and can go for long periods without eating, but differs from hibernation in that brumating reptiles are not asleep or living off fat reserves. Rather, their metabolism is slowed in response to cold temperatures, and the animal is very sluggish.
Classes of Reptiles
Class Reptilia includes many diverse species that are classified into four living clades.Reptilia includes four living clades: Crocodilia (crocodiles and alligators), Sphenodontia (tuataras), Squamata (lizards and snakes), and Testudines (turtles). These are the 25 species of Crocodilia, 2 species of Sphenodontia, approximately 9,200 Squamata species, and the Testudines, with about 325 species.
Crocodilia (“small lizard”) arose with a distinct lineage by the middle Triassic; extant species include alligators, crocodiles, and caimans. Crocodilians (Figure 2) live throughout the tropics and subtropics of Africa, South America, Southern Florida, Asia, and Australia. They are found in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish habitats, such as rivers and lakes, and spend most of their time in water. Some species are able to move on land due to their semi-erect posture.
Sphenodontia (“wedge tooth”) arose in the Mesozoic era and includes only one living genus, Tuatara, comprising two species that are found in New Zealand (Figure 3). Tuataras measure up to 80 centimeters and weigh about 1 kilogram. Although quite lizard-like in gross appearance, several unique features of the skull and jaws clearly define them and distinguish the group from the squamates.
Squamata (“scaly”) arose in the late Permian, and extant species include lizards and snakes. Both are found on all continents except Antarctica. Lizards and snakes are most closely related to tuataras, both groups having evolved from a lepidosaurian ancestor. Squamata is the largest extant clade of reptiles (Figure 4).
Most lizards differ from snakes by having four limbs, although these have been variously lost or significantly reduced in at least 60 lineages. Snakes lack eyelids and external ears, which are present in lizards. Lizard species range in size from chameleons and geckos, which are a few centimeters in length, to the Komodo dragon, which is about 3 meters in length. Most lizards are carnivorous, but some large species, such as iguanas, are herbivores.
Snakes are thought to have descended from either burrowing lizards or aquatic lizards over 100 million years ago (Figure 5). Snakes comprise about 3,000 species and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They range in size from 10 centimeter-long thread snakes to 10 meter-long pythons and anacondas. All snakes are carnivorous and eat small animals, birds, eggs, fish, and insects. The snake body form is so specialized that, in its general morphology, a “snake is a snake.” Their specializations all point to snakes having evolved to feed on relatively large prey (even though some current species have reversed this trend). Although variations exist, most snakes have a skull that is very flexible, involving eight rotational joints. They also differ from other squamates by having mandibles (lower jaws) without either bony or ligamentous attachment anteriorly. Having this connection via skin and muscle allows for great expansion of the gape and independent motion of the two sides—both advantages in swallowing big items.
Turtles are members of the clade Testudines (“having a shell”) (Figure 6). Turtles are characterized by a bony or cartilaginous shell. The shell consists of the ventral surface called the plastron and the dorsal surface called the carapace, which develops from the ribs. The plastron is made of scutes or plates; the scutes can be used to differentiate species of turtles. The two clades of turtles are most easily recognized by how they retract their necks. The dominant group, which includes all North American species, retracts its neck in a vertical S-curve. Turtles in the less speciose clade retract the neck with a horizontal curve.
Turtles arose approximately 200 million years ago, predating crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. Similar to other reptiles, turtles are ectotherms. They lay eggs on land, although many species live in or near water. None exhibit parental care. Turtles range in size from the speckled padloper tortoise at 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) to the leatherback sea turtle at 200 centimeters (over 6 feet). The term “turtle” is sometimes used to describe only those species of Testudines that live in the sea, with the terms “tortoise” and “terrapin” used to refer to species that live on land and in fresh water, respectively.
Evolutionary History of Reptiles
Reptiles originated approximately 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. One of the oldest known amniotes is Casineria, which had both amphibian and reptilian characteristics. One of the earliest undisputed reptiles was Hylonomus. Soon after the first amniotes appeared, they diverged into three groups—synapsids, anapsids, and diapsids—during the Permian period.
The Permian period also saw a second major divergence of diapsid reptiles into archosaurs (predecessors of crocodilians and dinosaurs) and lepidosaurs (predecessors of snakes and lizards). These groups remained inconspicuous until the Triassic period, when the archosaurs became the dominant terrestrial group due to the extinction of large-bodied anapsids and synapsids during the Permian-Triassic extinction. About 250 million years ago, archosaurs radiated into the dinosaurs and the pterosaurs.
Although they are sometimes mistakenly called dinosaurs, the pterosaurs were distinct from true dinosaurs (Figure 7). Pterosaurs had a number of adaptations that allowed for flight, including hollow bones (birds also exhibit hollow bones, a case of convergent evolution). Their wings were formed by membranes of skin that attached to the long, fourth finger of each arm and extended along the body to the legs.
The dinosaurs were a diverse group of terrestrial reptiles with more than 1,000 species identified to date. Paleontologists continue to discover new species of dinosaurs. Some dinosaurs were quadrupeds (Figure 8); others were bipeds. Some were carnivorous, whereas others were herbivorous. Dinosaurs laid eggs, and a number of nests containing fossilized eggs have been found. It is not known whether dinosaurs were endotherms or ectotherms. However, given that modern birds are endothermic, the dinosaurs that served as ancestors to birds likely were endothermic as well. Some fossil evidence exists for dinosaurian parental care, and comparative biology supports this hypothesis since the archosaur birds and crocodilians display parental care.
Dinosaurs dominated the Mesozoic Era, which was known as the “age of reptiles.” The dominance of dinosaurs lasted until the end of the Cretaceous, the last period of the Mesozoic Era. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction resulted in the loss of most of the large-bodied animals of the Mesozoic Era. Birds are the only living descendants of one of the major clades of dinosaurs.
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