Organisms Diversity & Evolution

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 135–150 | Cite as

Hypotheses on rostral shield evolution in fossorial lizards derived from the phylogenetic position of a new species of Paracontias (Squamata, Scincidae)

  • Aurélien Miralles
  • Jörn Köhler
  • David R. Vieites
  • Frank Glaw
  • Miguel Vences
Original Article


In squamate reptiles the rostral shield constitutes one of the most advanced cases of reduction in the number of scales in the rostral region, an evolutionary trend clearly associated with a burrowing lifestyle. This structure is characterized by the fusion of the rostral scale with all adjacent scales into a large, smooth and conical plate covering the snout, totally encompassing the nostrils, with a horizontal groove running posteriorly from either nostril. In lizards this structure evolved several times independently, in various lineages of limbless skinks and in the family Dibamidae. We performed a multilocus phylogenetic analysis of combined mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences from the fossorial genus Paracontias, including P. vermisaurus, a new species described herein under an integrative taxonomic approach. The resulting phylogeny supports monophyly of Paracontias, with the following internal topology: [P. kankana (P. vermisaurus sp. n. (((P. minimus + P. brocchii) (P. manify + P. hildebrandti)) (P. rothschildi + P. fasika)))]. The molecular data, coupled with a comparative morphological study, allows us to investigate the evolution of the snout scales into a single large rostral shield in Paracontias. We discuss the evolutionary processes through which the rostral shield may have originated (e.g. fusion of scales, number and order of steps involved), and conclude that intuitive and apparently obvious hypotheses for scale homologies based on position and size only (as usually formulated in squamate taxonomy) may be highly misleading, even in closely related species. We develop the hypothesis that the rostral shield may provide several functional advantages for fossorial species in facilitating burrowing and protecting the head from strong physical stress, e.g. smoother surface reducing friction between the tegument and the substrate, reduction in the number of flexible sutures resulting in strengthened tegument, and the rostral tip likely playing a role as a shock-absorbing buffer.


Burrowing lifestyle Scincidae Paracontias vermisaurus sp. n. Madagascar Scalation Molecular phylogeny 



We are grateful to Franco Andreone (MRSN), Annemarie Ohler and Ivan Ineich (MNHN) for giving us access to collection specimens, and to Jessica Maisano (UTA) and the Digital Morphology Library ( for making available the tomographic picture of Eumeces. We wish also to thank Theo Rajofiarison, Jim and Carol Patton, Emile Rajeriarison, Fanomezana Mihaja Ratsoavina and Roger-Daniel Randrianiaina who helped collect specimens, Florent and François Randrianasolo from the WCS for their help to companionship in the field, and our drivers Claude and Samy for safely carrying us to the bases of the Makira slopes. This work was carried out in the framework of a collaboration accord between the Département de Biologie Animale, Université d’Antananarivo, and the Technical University of Braunschweig. We are grateful to the Malagasy authorities for research and export permits, and to the Wildlife Conservation Society for supporting our research activities at Makira. Funding was provided by the Volkswagen Foundation to MV, a Ministry of Science and Innovation grant (CGL2009–10198) to DRV, and a postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to AM.


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Copyright information

© Gesellschaft für Biologische Systematik 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aurélien Miralles
    • 1
  • Jörn Köhler
    • 2
  • David R. Vieites
    • 3
  • Frank Glaw
    • 4
  • Miguel Vences
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Evolutionary Biology, Zoological InstituteTechnical University of BraunschweigBraunschweigGermany
  2. 2.Hessisches Landesmuseum DarmstadtDarmstadtGermany
  3. 3.Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)MadridSpain
  4. 4.Zoologische Staatssammlung MünchenMünchenGermany

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