- Discuss the evolution of amniotes
The first amniotes evolved from amphibian ancestors approximately 340 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. The early amniotes diverged into two main lines soon after the first amniotes arose. The initial split was into synapsids and sauropsids. Synapsids include all mammals, including extinct mammalian species. Synapsids also include therapsids, which were mammal-like reptiles from which mammals evolved. Sauropsids include reptiles and birds, and can be further divided into anapsids and diapsids. The key differences between the synapsids, anapsids, and diapsids are the structures of the skull and the number of temporal fenestrae behind each eye (Figure 1).
Temporal fenestrae are post-orbital openings in the skull that allow muscles to expand and lengthen. Anapsids have no temporal fenestrae, synapsids have one, and diapsids have two. Anapsids include extinct organisms and may, based on anatomy, include turtles. However, this is still controversial, and turtles are sometimes classified as diapsids based on molecular evidence. The diapsids include birds and all other living and extinct reptiles.
The diapsids in turn diverged into two groups, the Archosauromorpha (“ancient lizard form”) and the Lepidosauromorpha (“scaly lizard form”) during the Mesozoic period (Figure 2). The lepidosaurs include modern lizards, snakes, and tuataras. The archosaurs include modern crocodiles and alligators, and the extinct ichthyosaurs (“fish lizards” superficially resembling dolphins), pterosaurs (“winged lizard”), dinosaurs (“terrible lizard”), and birds. (We should note that clade Dinosauria includes birds, which evolved from a branch of maniraptoran theropod dinosaurs in the Mesozoic.)
The evolutionarily derived characteristics of amniotes include the amniotic egg and its four extraembryonic membranes, a thicker and more waterproof skin, and rib ventilation of the lungs (ventilation is performed by drawing air into and out of the lungs by muscles such as the costal rib muscles and the diaphragm).
In the past, the most common division of amniotes has been into the classes Mammalia, Reptilia, and Aves. However, both birds and mammals are descended from different amniote branches: the synapsids giving rise to the therapsids and mammals, and the diapsids giving rise to the lepidosaurs and archosaurs. We will consider both the birds and the mammals as groups distinct from reptiles for the purpose of this discussion with the understanding that this does not accurately reflect phylogenetic history and relationships.
Members of the order Testudines have an anapsid-like skull with one opening. However, molecular studies indicate that turtles descended from a diapsid ancestor. Why might this be the case?