Putting the cart before the… snake?

Time to reexamine some assumptions (again)! And also, talk about Hox genes, because do I even need a reason?

Hox genes often come up when we look for explanations for various innovations in animal body plans – the digits of land vertebrates, the limbless abdomens of insects, the various feeding and walking and swimming appendages of crustaceans, the strongly differentiated vertebral columns of mammals, and so on.

Speaking of differentiated vertebral columns, here’s one group I’d always thought of as having pretty much the exact opposite of them: snakes. Vertebral columns are patterned, among other things, by Hox genes. Boundaries between different types of vertebrae such as cervical (neck) and thoracic (the ones bearing the ribcage) correspond to boundaries of Hox gene expression in the embryo – e.g. the thoracic region in mammals begins where HoxC6 starts being expressed.

In mammals like us, and also in archosaurs (dinosaurs/birds, crocodiles and extinct relatives thereof), these boundaries can be really obvious and sharply defined – here’s Wikipedia’s crocodile skeleton for an example:

In contrast, the spine of a snake (example from Wikipedia below) just looks like a very long ribcage with a wee tail:

Snakes, of course, are rather weird vertebrates, and weird things make us sciencey types dig for an explanation.

Since Hox genes appear to be responsible for the regionalisation of vertebral columns in mammals and archosaurs, it stands to reason that they’d also have something to do with the comparative lack of regionalisation (and the disappearance of limbs) seen in snakes and similar creatures. In a now classic paper, Cohn and Tickle (1999) observed that unlike in chicks, the Hox genes that normally define the neck and thoracic regions are kind of mashed together in embryonic pythons. Below is a simple schematic from the paper showing where three Hox genes are expressed along the body axis in these two animals. (Green is HoxB5, blue is C8, red is C6.)


As more studies examined snake embryos, others came up with different ideas about the patterning of serpentine spines. Woltering et al. (2009) had a more in-depth look at Hox gene expression in both snakes and caecilians (limbless amphibians) and saw that there are in fact regions ruled by different Hoxes in these animals, if a little fuzzier than you’d expect in a mammal or bird – but they don’t appear to translate to different anatomical regions. Here’s their summary of their findings, showing the anteriormost limit of the activity of various Hox genes in a corn snake compared to a mouse:


Such differences aside, both of the above studies operated on the assumption that the vertebral column of snakes is “deregionalised” – i.e. that it evolved by losing well-defined anatomical regions present in its ancestors. But is that actually correct? Did snakes evolve from more regionalised ancestors, and did they then lose this regionalisation?

Head and Polly (2015) argue that the assumption of deregionalisation is a bit stinky. First, that super-long ribcage of snakes does in fact divide into several regions, and these regions respect the usual boundaries of Hox expression. Second, ordinary lizard-shaped lizards (from which snakes descended back in the days of the dinosaurs) are no more regionalised than snakes.

The study is mostly a statistical analysis of the shapes of vertebrae. Using an approach called geometric morphometrics, it turned these shapes from dozens of squamate (snake and lizard) species into sets of coordinates, which could then be compared to see how much they vary along the spine and whether the variation is smooth and continuous or clustered into different regions. The authors evaluated hypotheses regarding the number of distinct regions to see which one(s) best explained the observed variation. They also compared the squamates to alligators (representing archosaurs).

The results were partly what you’d expect. First, alligators showed much more overall variation in vertebral shape than squamates. Note that that’s all squamates – leggy lizards are nearly (though not quite) as uniform as their snake-like relatives. However, in all squamates, the best-fitting model of regionalisation was still one with either three or four distinct regions in front of the hips/cloaca, and in the majority, it was four, the same number as the alligator had.

Moreover, there appeared to be no strong support for an evolutionary pattern to the number of regions – specifically, none of the scenarios in which the origin of snake-like body plans involved the loss of one or more regions were particularly favoured by the data. There was also no systematic variation in the relative lengths of various regions; the idea that snakes in general have ridiculously long thoraxes is not supported by this analysis.

In summary, snakes might show a little less variation in vertebral shape than their closest relatives, but they certainly didn’t descend from alligator-style sharply regionalised ancestors, and they do still have regionalised spines.

Hox gene expression is not known for most of the creatures for which vertebral shapes were analysed, but such data do exist for mammals (mice, here), alligators, and corn snakes. What is known about different domains of Hox gene activation in these three animals turns out to match the anatomical boundaries defined by the models pretty well. In the mouse and alligator, Hox expression boundaries are sharp, and the borders of regions fall within one vertebra of them.

In the snake, the genetic and morphological boundaries are both gradual, but the boundaries estimated by the best model are always within the fuzzy boundary region of an appropriate Hox gene expression domain. Overall, the relationship between Hox genes and regions of the spine is pretty consistent in all three species.

To finish off, the authors make the important point that once you start turning to the fossil record and examining extinct relatives of mammals, or archosaurs, or squamates, or beasties close to the common ancestor of all three groups (collectively known as amniotes), you tend to find something less obviously regionalised than living mammals or archosaurs – check out this little figure from Head and Polly (2015) to see what they’re talking about:


(Moving across the tree, Seymouria is an early relative of amniotes but not quite an amniote; Captorhinus is similarly related to archosaurs and squamates, Uromastyx is the spiny-tailed lizard, Lichanura is a boa, Thrinaxodon is a close relative of mammals from the Triassic, and Mus, of course, is everyone’s favourite rodent. Note how alligators and mice really stand out with their ribless lower backs and suchlike.)

Although they don’t show stats for extinct creatures, Head and Polly argue that mammals and archosaurs, not snakes, are the weird ones when it comes to vertebral regionalisation. For most of amniote evolution, the norm was the more subtle version seen in living squamates. It was only during the origin of mammals and archosaurs that boundaries were sharpened and differences between regions magnified. Nice bit of convergent/parallel evolution there!



Cohn MJ & Tickle C (1999) Developmental basis of limblessness and axial patterning in snakes. Nature 399:474-479

Head JJ & Polly PD (2015) Evolution of the snake body form reveals homoplasy in amniote Hox gene function. Nature 520:86-89

Woltering JM et al. (2009) Axial patterning in snakes and caecilians: evidence for an alternative interpretation of the Hox code. Developmental Biology 332:82-89

Echinoderm bonanza

Smith et al. (2013) has been sitting on my desktop waiting to be read for the last month or so. Man, am I glad that I finally opened the thing. I’m quite fond of echinoderms, and this paper is full of them. Of course. It’s about echinoderms. Specifically, it’s about the diverse menagerie of them that existed, it seems, a little bit earlier than thought.

The brief little paper introduces new echinoderm finds from two Mid-Cambrian formations in Morocco, which at the time was part of the great continent of Gondwana. As far as I’m concerned, it was worth reading just for this lineup of Cambrian echinoderms. I mean, echinoderms are so amazingly weird in such a variety of ways. They’re a delight.


(The drawings themselves are from Fig. 3. of the paper; I rearranged them to fit into my post width, and the boxes are my additions. Dark box = new groups/species from Morocco, light grey box = known groups/species whose first appearance was pushed back in time by the Moroccan finds.)

Although none of the creatures above belong to the living classes of echinoderms, they display a wide range of body plans. You could say their body plans are more diverse* than those of living echinoderms. (And if you said that, the ghost of Stephen Jay Gould would nod approvingly.) For example, modern echinoderms tend to have either (usually five-part) radial symmetry (any old starfish) or bilateral symmetry that clearly comes from radial symmetry (heart urchins).

In these Early- to Mid-Cambrian varieties, you can see some five-rayed creatures, some that are more or less bilateral without any obvious connection to the prototypical five-point star, animals that are just kind of asymmetric, and those strange spindle-shaped helicoplacoids that look like someone took an animal with radial symmetry and wrung it out. And then there are all the various arrangements of arms and stalks and armour plates that I tend to gloss over when reading about the beasts. (Yeah. I have no attention span.)

The Morroccan finds have some very interesting highlights. The second creature in the lineup above is one of them. Its top half looks like a helicoplacoid such as Helicoplacus itself (first drawing). It’s got that characteristic spiral arrangement of plates and a mouth at the top end. However, unlike previously known helicoplacoids, it sits on a stalk that resembles the radially-symmetric eocrinoids (like the creature on its right). It’s a transitional form all right, though we’ll have to wait for future publications and perhaps future discoveries to see which way evolution actually went. It’ll already help palaeontologists make sense of helicoplacoids themselves, though, which I gather is a big thing in itself. The authors promise to publish a proper description of the creature, which is really exciting.

The other exciting thing about the Moroccan echinoderms is their age. As I already hinted at with my grey boxes, the new fossils push back the known time range of many echinoderm body plans by millions of years. This means that the wide variety of body plans we saw above was already present as little as 10-15 million years after the first appearance of scattered bits of echinoderm skeleton in the fossil record.

Smith et al. argue that this is a fairly solid conclusion based on the mineralogy of echinoderm skeletons. Organisms with calcium carbonate hard parts have a tendency to adopt the “easiest” mineralogy at the time they first evolve skeletons. Seawater composition changes over geological time; most importantly, the ratio of calcium to magnesium fluctuates. Calcium carbonate can adopt several different crystal forms, and the Ca/Mg ratio influences which of them are easier to make. So when there’s a lot of Mg in the sea, aragonite is the “natural” choice, whereas low Mg levels favour calcite.

The first appearance of echinoderms around 525 million years ago coincides with a shift in ocean chemistry from “aragonite seas” to “calcite seas”. Echinoderms and a bunch of other groups that first show up around that time have skeletons that are calcite in their structure but incorporate a lot of Mg. Since the ocean before was favourable to aragonite, it’s unlikely that echinoderm skeletons appeared much earlier than this date. In other words, echinoderm evolution during this geologically short period was truly worthy of the name “Cambrian explosion”.

That is, of course, if the appearance of echinoderm skeletons precedes the appearance of echinoderm body plans. The oldest of our Cambrian treasure troves of soft-bodied fossils, such as the rocks that yielded the Chengjiang biota of China, are roughly the same age as the first echinoderm skeletons. However, they don’t contain undisputed echinoderms as far as I can tell (Clausen et al., 2010). Proposed “echinoderms” from before the Cambrian are even less accepted. Of course, the unique structure of echinoderm skeletons is easy to recognise, but how do you identify an echinoderm ancestor without such a skeleton? (Is all that bodyplan diversity even possible without hard skeletal support?)

Caveats aside, this Moroccan stuff is awesome. And also, if my caveat proves overly cautious, echinoderms did some serious evolving in their first few million years on earth. A supersonic ride with Macroevolution Airlines?


*OK, if I want to be absolutely pedantic, and I do, then body plans are disparate rather than diverse. “Disparity” in palaeontological/evo-devo parlance refers to how different two or more creatures are. Diversity means how many different creatures there are. Maybe I should do a post on that, actually.



Clausen S et al. (2010) The absence of echinoderms from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna of China: Palaeoecological and palaeogeographical implications. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 294:133-141

Smith AB et al. (2013) The oldest echinoderm faunas from Gondwana show that echinoderm body plan diversification was rapid. Nature Communications 4:1385

Macroevolution Airlines

(This post has been mostly written for a long time but I never got round to publishing it. It’s kind of my darling baby, and I never felt quite ready to let it out into the world. Well, every parent has to let go at some point…)

In the creation vs. evolution section of Christian Forums, “macroevolution” is a common topic of name-calling discussion. At some point in what seems like every other thread, a creationist demands “proof” of macroevolution. The common reaction from the evolution side is that the creationist doesn’t understand evolution, and macroevolution is just lots of microevolution, and here is a list of observed speciation events anyway. While the first point is true more often than not, I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the second lately. To my mind, and I think to anyone interested in palaeontology and/or evo-devo, it’s not at all obvious that macroevolution must be fundamentally similar to the everyday adaptations and driftings we commonly observe real-time.

(Image from the UCMP Understanding Evolution site)

What exactly is macroevolution?

Before I continue my musings, I must first clarify what I mean by micro- and macroevolution. I see two interpretations in use in the scientific community, and I don’t think they are entirely equivalent. The “rigorous” interpretation defines microevolution as anything that happens this side of speciation. Populations adapting to short-term environmental change, individuals and their genes migrating back and forth between neighbouring populations, ordinary everyday genetic drift, etc. are microevolutionary phenomena. Macroevolution starts with the formation of new species. The “wishy-washy” interpretation defines macroevolution as “evolution on the large scale”, or “big change”. This is the one I think many palaeontologists would prefer, and many students of evo-devo as well. This is also the one most creationists seem to have in mind. Most – if not all – of the examples in the well-worn speciation lists I’m guilty of pulling out myself are only macroevolution in the first sense. This is something people often seem unaware of: speciation and big change do not go hand in hand.

The definition I prefer (and I changed my mind on this fairly recently) is the second, because despite its vagueness, it gives us a word for something vitally important, all the things that are (usually) bigger than the evolutionary processes we can readily observe on human timescales. How did something resembling a sausage on legs give rise to the mind-boggling diversity of arthropods? How did our own ancestors end up with legs instead of fins? Why did dinosaurs grow into giants and rule the land while the ancestors of mammals retreated to the shadows? This is what macroevolution means to me. As far as I’m concerned, the population geneticists’ kind of macroevolution already has a perfectly good word for it, and that word is speciation.

The question: what is the question?

With that in mind, is macroevolution something different? This is actually at least two questions. One can ask whether the external forces that set out the path of evolution act in the same way on all scales. Did the environment always exert the same kinds of pressures on living things? The answer to this is probably no – from the appearance of oxygen in the atmosphere to the arrival of predators in animal communities, both non-living and living factors have changed the rules of ecosystems many times in earth history. Do the same sorts of pressures that determine the fate of single populations also affect whole lineages? Does selection operate on more than one level? Do the same traits that natural selection favours in ordinary times also help you in extraordinary times? (Another “no”, if David Jablonski can be believed.)

Alternatively, one can also ask whether small and large changes in the properties of organisms are governed by different intrinsic rules. Do, say, new body parts originate through the same kinds of mutations as new hair colours? Are major changes and small adjustments associated with different developmental stages (Arthur, 2008)? Did the nature of variation itself change over evolutionary time (Gould, 1989; Erwin, 2011)? That last one especially intrigues me, and it may yet return in future meanderings. (It’ll return in force if I ever muster the fortitude to discuss the Cambrian explosion ;))

The way to America

In the aforementioned creation vs. evolution debates, physical distance is a commonly used analogy for evolutionary distance. If you believe in centimetres, the argument goes, how can you not believe in kilometres? If you can walk to the kitchen, why can’t you walk a mile?

I think this analogy is worth examining a little further, because it turns out to be great parallel to the micro vs. macro issue. It is true that anyone who can walk can walk a mile. It may take long and it may tire you out, depending on your physique, but it is possible. However, it isn’t very hard to think of destinations that are simply impossible to reach by walking. I live in Europe. Barring ice ages and Bering land bridges, no amount of steps would take me to America. It is still possible for me to go there, but I have to take a flight or perhaps hop on a ship. Is macroevolution like a mile, or is it more like the distance between Europe and the New World? Does a velvet worm-like creature evolve into an arthropod by lots of tiny steps of its chubby legs, or does it take a ride with Macroevolution Airlines?



Arthur W (2008) Conflicting hypotheses on the nature of mega-evolution. In: Minelli A & Fusco G (eds.) Evolving Pathways: Key Themes in Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Cambridge University Press, pp. 50-61

Erwin DH (2011) Evolutionary uniformitarianism. Developmental Biology 357:27-34

Gould SJ (1989) Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W. W. Norton & Co.