Reading Time: 2 minutes By Doug Beckers (Flickr: yellow-bellied three-toed skink) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 2 minutes

This article is from the National Geographic and should put paid to some Creationists claims that we cannot see evolution in action:

Evolution has been caught in the act, according to scientists who are decoding how a species of Australian lizard is abandoning egg-laying in favor of live birth.

Along the warm coastal lowlands of New South Wales (map), the yellow-bellied three-toed skink lays eggs to reproduce. But individuals of the same species living in the state’s higher, colder mountains are almost all giving birth to live young.

By Doug Beckers (Flickr: yellow-bellied three-toed skink) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Doug Beckers (Flickr: yellow-bellied three-toed skink) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Only two other modern reptiles—another skink species and a European lizard—use both types of reproduction.

Evolutionary records shows that nearly a hundred reptile lineages have independently made the transition from egg-laying to live birth in the past, and today about 20 percent of all living snakes and lizards give birth to live young only.

But modern reptiles that have live young provide only a single snapshot on a long evolutionary time line, said study co-author James Stewart, a biologist at East Tennessee State University. The dual behavior of the yellow-bellied three-toed skink therefore offers scientists a rare opportunity.

“By studying differences among populations that are in different stages of this process, you can begin to put together what looks like the transition from one [birth style] to the other.”

Eggs-to-Baby Switch Creates Nutrient Problem

One of the mysteries of how reptiles switch from eggs to live babies is how the young get their nourishment before birth.

In mammals a highly specialized placenta connects the fetus to the uterus wall, allowing the baby to take up oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood and pass back waste. (See related pictures of “extreme” animals in the womb.)

In egg-laying species, the embryo gets nourishment from the yolk, but calcium absorbed from the porous shell is also an important nutrient source.

Some fish and reptiles, meanwhile, use a mix of both birthing styles. The mother forms eggs, but then retains them inside her body until the very last stages of embryonic development.

The shells of these eggs thin dramatically so that the embryos can breathe, until live babies are born covered with only thin membranes—all that remains of the shells.

This adaptation presents a potential nourishment problem: A thinner shell has less calcium, which could cause deficiencies for the young reptiles.

Stewart and colleagues, who have studied skinks for years, decided to look for clues to the nutrient problem in the structure and chemistry of the yellow-bellied three-toed skink’s uterus.

“Now we can see that the uterus secretes calcium that becomes incorporated into the embryo—it’s basically the early stages of the evolution of a placenta in reptiles,” Stewart explained.

Evolutionary Transition Surprisingly Simple

Both birthing styles come with evolutionary tradeoffs: Eggs are more vulnerable to external threats, such as extreme weather and predators, but internal fetuses can be more taxing for the mother.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...