Evolution of the reptiles

The reptiles make up a huge group of fossil and living vertebrates, ranging in size from tiny thread snakes to sauropod dinosaurs, which are the largest animals ever to have lived on land. Through time reptiles have evolved into unique forms, such as turtles, snakes, and dinosaurs, but they also have taken on the appearance and habits of other vertebrate groups, such as sharks and dolphins. As with other animal classes, reptile groups that are thought to share a common ancestor are known as clades. The application of cladistics has changed ideas about how organisms should be classified. For instance, because they are thought to be descended from small bipedal dinosaurs, birds are now included with the reptiles. But synapsids (once called mammal-like reptiles) are classified with the mammals.

Because so many diverse animals are included under the term reptiles, they are difficult to define as a single group. Reptiles are amniotes, that is, they are tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates) with an amnion that surrounds and protects the developing embryo. Reptiles other than birds and their immediate ancestors lack true feathers, and all of them lack true hair. Common (though varying) characteristics among reptiles include the fact that they cannot regulate their temper

Malayan Box Turtle Hatchlings
Malayan box turtle (Cuora amboinensis) hatchling. (Photo by Henri Janssen. Reproduced by permission.)

ature internally (with the possible exceptions of some dinosaurs and all birds), that they have an extensive covering of scales or bony plates or both (individual exceptions occur in many major groups), that they have a three-chambered heart (with the exceptions of crocodilians and, possibly, other ar-chosaurs), and that they have 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The major reptile groups considered here are Anapsida ("stem reptiles," turtles, and other primitive groups), Euryap-sida (the marine nothosaurs, plesiosaurs, placodonts, and ichthyosaurs), and Diapsida. The last group includes the Lepidosauria (sphenodontians, such as tuatara and its fossil relatives; lizards; and snakes) and the Archosauria (pseudo-suchians; crocodilians; pterosaurs, also known as "flying reptiles"; and dinosaurs). Each of the three major reptile groups are defined on the basis of the number and position of large openings in the temporal region of the skull behind the eyes (relative to other skull bones). Anapsid reptiles have no large openings in the temporal region of the skull and were the first stem to branch off the reptilian lineage. Euryapsid reptiles have a single temporal opening in the upper part of the skull. Diapsid reptiles have two large temporal openings, one above and one below a horizontal bony bridge.

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