Taxon of the Week: Beelzebufo.

Yet again, Richard and I are falling behind on delivering on the blog front. For that, we apologise. The next 7 days (hopefully) should bring numerous posts to make up for lost time, including an opinion piece!

Anyway, on with the show. If you follow palaeontological news in any sense, then you’ll probably have heard about a new marine reptile called Atopodentatus. If you haven’t heard of Atopodentatus, imagine if you will the offspring of a basal sauropterygian, Predator, and Cthulu that potentially could have filter fed. Or, you could just check out Brian Switek’s well written Atopodentatus article (with pretty pictures). That’s right, this week we’re going against the grain, and focusing in on a big Cretaceous amphibian, that’s made for a big controversy. I assure you, it’s going to be ribbeting.

Big facts: “we’re gonna need a bigger pond”.

This week, our TotW is Beelzebufo ampinga. Before we knuckle down and attempt to remove the f(r)og from the controversy, let’s get down to the basics. B. ampinga was discovered in 2007 by a team from Stony Brook University from the Maevarano Fm, Madagascar, the remains dated to 70-65Ma (late Cretaceous). The initial paper had little to work with, as the holotype only consists of a few cranial elements, with a few vertebrae, a urostyle and a tibiofibula. However, even with such few remains, the initial size estimates for Beelzebufo are astonishing: with a length of over 40cm, and its head alone estimated at half that in width (20cm!). This immediately bestows Beelzebufo with the crown of the largest frog to ever have lived. Beelzebufo was initially placed within the Ceratophryinae (the common horned frogs), which is unusual and is the basis of most of the controversy surrounding B. ampinga (more on that later). Due to it’s phylogenetic position, Beelzebufo has hyperossification in the skull, stabilising connections between the upper jaw and the skull, a huge mouth, oh, and sharp teeth. What does this mean? Well, like all other ceratophyrines Beelzebufo probably was carniverous, and by being so large, many agree that it would have been an ambush predator of small vertebrates, such as small/baby dinosaurs. So a frog that eats dinosaurs, no wonder they called it Devil Frog.

Evans2008

The holotype of Beelzebufo. Bones that were discovered in white. Modified from Evans et al. (2008).

Earlier in 2014, Beelzebufo was back. This time a (open access!) paper was published, showing off many new specimens of the Devil Frog. These specimens (64 since 2007) were far more complete than the original published findings, and have shown us that it was far weirder than previously imagined. It also gave us a more complete picture of B. ampinga as an organism and as a species. By looking at the squamosal of different individuals it became apparent that there was a lot of intraspecific variation present in B. ampinga, with a size difference of up to 20% present between certain individuals. This has found to be caused by different individuals having different bone growth rates and patterns. Now, the simplest explanation is everyone’s favourite, sexual dimorphism (in modern ceratophryines, the females are larger than males in 90% of cases). However, studies on extant frogs have shown that bone growth patterns and maturation times in anurans can be dependent on other factors such as seasonal food and water availability, as well as temperature.

SOON.

SOON.

Another intriguing fact is that Madagascar at that time was seasonal arid, with dry periods being especially water-sparse. So how does a large amphibian like Beelzebufo cope? Again, material from the 2014 publication (Evans et al. 2014) helps us to possible answer this. Hyperossification (especially in the skull) is prevalent in Beelzebufo. This is apparent in the initial discovery also, but combine this with evidence from Evans et al. (2014), features such as the loss of a tympanic membrane, tall neural spines and cranial exostosis go some way towards confirming that Beelzebufo was a burrower. Thus enabling it to escape desiccation during extreme dry spells. Not only did Evans et al. (2014) provide us with a wealth of new information on an important fossil anuran, but it also came with some fantastic 3D skeletal morphological reconstructions.

Evans2014

The aforementioned pretty digital reconstruction. Also, those posterolateral flanges, phwoar. Modified from Evans et al. (2014).

Big controversy

As has been eluded to, Beelzebufo caused a big splash. Evans et al. (2008) placed B. ampinga within Ceratophryinae, a subfamily found only in South America, based on mainly cranial characters and a supporting phylogenetic analysis. Evans commented that the discovery of a late Cretaceous ceratophryine in this area is ‘unexpected’. Indeed, if you look at the palaeobiogeography it still looks squiffy, with the Madagascar-Seychelles-India tectonic plate losing contact from South America 120 million years-ago. However, even this is debated. Multiple lines of evidence now suggest some land-link was present between South America and Madagascar, including many molecular studies (ratite birds, iguanin lizards et al.) and physical similarities present between South American and Madagascan dinosaurs, crocodyliforms and mammal. So a ceratophryine from the Cretaceous of Madagascar isn’t so crazy, right?

Wrong. Two years after the initial Evans publication Ruane et al. (2010) carried out rigorous testing on the phylogenetic position of Beelzebufo. In Evans et al. (2008), it was apparently established that B. ampinga was a crown-group Ceratophryinae, and a sister taxon to the living Ceratophrys. Ruane et al. had a big problem with this reasoning, stating that the relationship between Beelzebufo and Ceratophrys is supported by 1 out of 81 characterstics, support values for the relationship between these two were also low in the phylogenetic study. Ruane et al. (2010) used molecular phylogenies (with data from extant anurans) in tandem with Beelzebufo, using it as a calibration point, to calculate the timings of the emergence of the MRCA (most recent common ancestor) of modern ceratophryines. With Beelzebufo used in this way, the emergence time of the ceratophryine MRCA was way before the times calculated by other studies, using well established datasets.Ruane et al. came to the conclusion that contrary to Evans’ initial hypothesis, Beelzebufo was a) not a sister taxon of Ceratophrys or b) definitely not a crown-group ceratophryine. However, Ruane et al. don’t really give us more than that, apart from saying it might be some sort of stem-group ceratophryine or a crown-group Hyloidea (a superfamily). If were throwing ballpark ideas around for the phylogenetic position of Beelzebufo, then I’m gunning for a stem-group Hynerian.

dominarrygelxvi

Dominar Rygel XVI, a fine example of Hynerian for all those nerds who don’t watch Farscape.

The Evanpire Strikes back

Not one for lying down Evans et al. (2014), now armed with many more specimens than last time around, resurrected the phylogenetic controversy surrounding B. ampinga. In the 2014 publication, the phylogenetic position of Beelzebufo was restored to the initial hypothesis, stating that Beelzebufo was indeed a crown-group ceratophryine, with this relationship holding true even when different tree-making steps and calibration points were used. Evans et al. also deal with many of the issues raised by Ruane et al. For example, Ruane et al. argue that the low support values between Beelzebufo and Ceratophrys indicate that they might not be sister taxon (and hence Beelzebufo isn’t part of the ceratophryine crown-group). Yet Evans et al. point out that support values are low even in studies that solely consider extant ceratophryids.

The fuzzy phylogenetic positioning given to Beelzebufo by Ruane et al. (maybe stem-group this, or crown-group that) is put under fire by Evans et al. I’ve already said that the Cretaceous MRCA emergence time is Ruane’s main argument against B. ampinga as a crown-group ceratophryine, however what I’ve not yet said (and what Evan’s et al. 2014 love to point out) is that Ruane et al. almost positively place another mid-late Cretaceous frog, Baurubatrachus as a ceratophryid (crown and/or stem), which still means that the MRCA is somewhere in the Cretaceous. Evans was quick (p.54) to point out that Ruane et al. at this point were being somewhat hypocritical in this regard. Finally, Evans points out that the hyperossification present in Beelzebufo is also present in living ceratophryids, another compelling line of evidence in support of the crown-group hypothesis. Despite being confident in their findings, Evans et al. still give a passing mention of the notion that hyperossification (and other ceratophryid characters) may be present due to convergent evolution, however, for the time being (and to conclude!) Beelzebufo appears to be (for the time being) a crown group ceratophryid. *Sighs*.

You've made it past the long-winded bit. Well done, have a pretty picture.

You’ve made it past the long-winded bit. Well done, have a pretty picture.

Big importance

Well done, you’ve made it through a very poorly written account of the s**t-storm which is the phylogenetic positioning of Beelzebufo. By this point, you’ve probably seen the words crown, stem, Beelzebufo, et al. and ceratophryine/d/inae enough to last multiple lifetimes, so then, why should we care about Beelzebufo and it’s position within the ‘tree of life’. You should care for two reasons: 1) the timing of the emergence of ceratophryids, 2) the importance of correctly using fossils in phylogenetic studies.

All glory to the importance of Beelzebufo. You will obey.

All glory to the importance of Beelzebufo. You will obey.

You should remember that the biogeography of Madagascar in the Cretaceous creates problems for the ceratophryid hypothesis. Ali et al. (2008, 2009 2011) have recently noted that land bridges between Madagascar and South America were severed by 115-112Ma. If this is true, (and presuming Beelzebufo and undiscovered others didn’t raft across the seaways, which is actually a large presumption, giving the thick skinned Beelzebufo would weather the salty waters well, for a frog) this pushes the emergence time of ceratophryids to before these dates. This is again contrary to studies that have found the emergence times of crown-group Hyloideans (a superfamily if you remember) to be around 88Ma. As has been stated many times of this blog, any fossil, even an incomplete specimen, if found in the certain places at certain times can cause palaeontologists/phylogeneticists/biologists to have to seriously reconsider the state of the field.

This leads nicely onto the second reason why Beelzebufo is important. Hypocritical arguments aside, Ruane et al., using Beelzebufo as an example, shows how any study using fossils as certain anchor points in phylogenetic studies MUST look closely at the phylogenetic position (and the evidence behind it) of the fossil taxa, and decide if this is appropriate. Any mistakes when involving fossil taxa in these studies affects conclusions with wide reaching implications, such as the divergence/emergence times of certain, and sometimes, very large clades.

And finally, Beelzebufo kinda looks like Hypno Toad. That’s pretty rad.

References

  • Evans, S. E. et al. (2008). A giant frog with South American affinities from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105: 2951–2956.
  • Evans S. E. et al. (2014). New Material of Beelzebufo, a Hyperossified Frog (Amphibia: Anura) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. PLoS ONE 9(1): e87236. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087236
  • Ruane S. et al. (2011). Phylogenetic relationships of the Cretaceous frog Beelzebufo from Madagascar and the placement of fossil constraints based on temporal and phylogenetic evidence. J Evol Biol 24: 274–285.
  • Ali J. R., Aitchison J. C. (2008). Gondwana to Asia: plate tectonics, paleogeography and the biological connectivity of the Indian sub-continent from the Middle Jurassic through end Eocene (166–35 Ma). Earth-Science Reviews 88: 145–166.
  • Ali J. R., Aitchison J. C. (2009). Kerguelen Plateau and the Late Cretaceous southern-continent bioconnection hypothesis: tales from a topographical ocean. J Biogeogr 36: 1778–1784.
  • Ali J. R., Krause D. W. (2011). Late Cretaceous bioconnections between Indo-Madagascar and Antarctica: refutation of the Gunnerus Ridge causeway hypothesis. J Biogeogr 38: 1855–1872.
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