Biogeography of worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) driven by end-Cretaceous mass extinction

Nicholas Longrich, Jakob Vinther, R. Alexander Pyron, Davide Pisani, Jacques Gauthier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

35 Citations (Scopus)
99 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

Worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) are burrowing squamates that live as subterranean predators. Their underground existence should limit dispersal, yet they are widespread throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa. This pattern was traditionally explained by continental drift, but molecular clocks suggest a Cenozoic diversification, long after the break-up of Pangaea, implying dispersal. Here, we describe primitive amphisbaenians from the North American Palaeocene, including the oldest known amphisbaenian, and provide new and older molecular divergence estimates for the clade, showing that worm lizards originated in North America, then radiated and dispersed in the Palaeogene following the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-Pg) extinction. This scenario implies at least three trans-oceanic dispersals: from North America to Europe, from North America to Africa and from Africa to South America. Amphisbaenians provide a striking case study in biogeography, suggesting that the role of continental drift in biogeography may be overstated. Instead, these patterns support Darwin and Wallace's hypothesis that the geographical ranges of modern clades result from dispersal, including oceanic rafting. Mass extinctions may facilitate dispersal events by eliminating competitors and predators that would otherwise hinder establishment of dispersing populations, removing biotic barriers to dispersal.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20143034
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume282
Issue number1806
Early online date1 Apr 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2015

Keywords

  • Evolution
  • Palaeontology
  • Taxonomy
  • Systematics

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