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Physiology - Radiology and Medical Imaging

The Oropharyngeal Morphology in the Semiaquatic Giant Asian Pond Turtle, Heosemys grandis, and Its Evolutionary Implications
Published: Friday, September 28, 2012
Author: Monika Lintner et al.

by Monika Lintner, Anton Weissenbacher, Egon Heiss

The oropharynx as a functional entity plays a fundamental role in feeding. Transitions from aquatic to terrestrial lifestyles in vertebrates demanded major changes of the oropharynx for the required adaptations to a different feeding environment. Extant turtles evolved terrestrial feeding modes in three families (testudinids, emydids, geoemydids)–independently from other amniotes–and are therefore important model organisms to reconstruct morpho-functional changes behind aquatic-terrestrial transitions. In this study we hypothesized that the oropharyngeal morphology in semiaquatic turtles of the geoemydid family shows parallels to testudinids, the only purely terrestrial extant lineage. We provide an in-depth description of the oropharynx in the semiaquatic geoemydid Heosemys grandis by using a combination of micro computed tomography (micro-CT) and subsequent digital in situ 3-D reconstruction, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and histology. We show that H. grandis has a large tongue with rough papillose surface and well-developed lingual muscles. The attachment sites of the lingual muscles on the hyolingual skeleton and their courses within the tongue are nearly identical with testudinids. The hyolingual skeleton itself is mainly cartilaginous and shows distinct–but compared to testudinids rather small–anterior extensions of the hyoid body and hypoglossum. Oral glands are well developed in H. grandis but are smaller and simpler than in testudinids. Similarly, oropharyngeal keratinization was minimal and found only in the anterior palate, regions close to the beak, and tongue tip. We conclude that H. grandis shows distinct oropharyngeal morpho-functional adaptations for a terrestrial lifestyle but still retains characters typical for aquatic forms. This makes this species an important example showing the oropharyngeal adaptations behind aquatic-terrestrial transitions in turtles.