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Morphometric analysis of chameleon fossil fragments from the Early Pliocene of South Africa: a new piece of the chamaeleonid history

Abstract

The evolutionary history of chameleons has been predominantly studied through phylogenetic approaches as the fossil register of chameleons is limited and fragmented. The poor state of preservation of these fossils has moreover led to the origin of numerous nomen dubia, and the identification of many chameleon fossils remains uncertain. We here examine chameleon fossil fragments from the Early Pliocene Varswater formation, exposed at the locality of Langebaanweg “E” Quarry along the southwestern coast of South Africa. Our aim was to explore whether these fossil fragments could be assigned to extant genera. To do so, we used geometric morphometric approaches based on microtomographic imaging of extant chameleons as well as the fossil fragments themselves. Our study suggests that the fossils from this deposit most likely represent at least two different forms that may belong to different genera. Most fragments are phenotypically dissimilar from the South African endemic genus Bradypodion and are more similar to other chameleon genera such as Trioceros or Kinyongia. However, close phenetic similarities between some of the fragments and the Seychelles endemic Archaius or the Madagascan genus Furcifer suggest that some of these fragments may not contain enough genus-specific information to allow correct identification. Other fragments such as the parietal fragments appear to contain more genus-specific information, however. Although our data suggest that the fossil diversity of chameleons in South Africa was potentially greater than it is today, this remains to be verified based on other and more complete fragments.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Graham Avery, Kerwin van Willingh, and Romala Govender from the Iziko South African Museum for logistical assistance with regard to allowing access to and analyses of their microfossil collection from Langebaanweg. We would also like to thank Andrej Čerňanský and two anonymous reviewers for constructive and helpful comments on a prior version of our manuscript. Several museums provided comparative specimens: Port Elizabeth Museum-Bayworld (W. Conradie), the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Ivan Ineich), the Royal Museum for Central Africa (D. Meirte), and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard (J. Rosado). μCT scans of fossils and extant specimens were performed at the ESRF Grenoble, the IPHE at the Université de Poitiers, the Laboratoire Navier at the Ecole des Ponts-ParisTech (France), and the Central Analytical Facilities from Stellenbosch University. We thank Antoine Du Plessis, Nicolas Lenoir, Paul Tafforeau, and Peter Cloetens for help with scanning. We also acknowledge the UMS CNRS/MNHN2700, “Outils et méthodes de la systématique intégrative” for access to the morphometrics platform and the CEMIM platform for access to their facilities. This study was supported by a European Synchrotron Radiation Facility Project through allocation of beam time. μCT scanning at Navier was supported by grants from the Région Ile-de-France.

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Correspondence to Anthony Herrel.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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figure10

High Resolution Image (GIF 15 kb)

figure11

High Resolution Image (GIF 26 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 1

Neighbor joining tree performed on the shape data only. This tree illustrates phenotypic similarity in cranial shape between chameleons of different genera and resembles older classifications of chameleons based on morphological data. (TIFF 439 kb)

Supplementary Fig. 2

Neighbor joining tree performed on the form data (i.e. size + shape). As can be observed, the phenetic similarity between taxa is partly driven by similarity in overall size with larger genera being more similar to one another. (TIFF 726 kb)

ESM 3

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Dollion, A.Y., Cornette, R., Tolley, K.A. et al. Morphometric analysis of chameleon fossil fragments from the Early Pliocene of South Africa: a new piece of the chamaeleonid history. Sci Nat 102, 2 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-014-1254-3

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Keywords

  • Chamaeleonidae
  • Early Pliocene
  • Geometric morphometrics
  • Varswater formation
  • Langebaanweg