Evolutionary transformations of the fetal membranes of viviparous reptiles: A case study of two lineages


  • James R. Stewart,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee 37614–1710
    • Department of Biological Sciences, Box 70703, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN. 37614–1710
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Michael B. Thompson

    1. School of Biological Sciences and Wildlife Research Institute, Heydon-Laurence Building, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author


The reptilian placenta is a composite structure formed by a functional interaction between extraembryonic membranes and the maternal uterus. Study of placental structure of squamate reptiles over the past century has established that each of the multiple independent origins of placentation, which characterize the reproductive diversity of squamates, has resulted from the evolutionary transformation of these homologous structures. Because each evolutionary transformation is an independent novel relationship between maternal and embryonic tissues, the resulting placentae are not homologous, even though the individual components may be. The evolution of reptilian placentation should reveal much about evolutionary patterns and mechanisms because similar structural—functional systems have been transformed along parallel trajectories on multiple occasions. We compared extraembryonic membrane and placental development and pattern of embryonic nutrition in thamnophiine snakes and Pseudemoia lizards in the context of recent hypotheses of phylogenetic relationships. Two primary types of placentation, chorioallantoic and yolk sac, evolved in each lineage. Smooth, highly vascular regions of chorioallantoic placentation are indistinguishable homoplasies that evolved in parallel, likely to facilitate respiratory exchange. The yolk sac placenta of each lineage is specialized for histotrophic nutrient transfer, yet composition of these structures differs because of variation in the ancestral snakes and lizards. In addition, the omphalopleure that contributes to yolk sac placentation persists to later embryonic stages compared to oviparous outgroups, but the two lineages have evolved different structures that prevent replacement of the omphalopleure by the allantois. Each lineage has also evolved unique structural specializations of the chorioallantoic placenta. J. Exp. Zool. 299A:13–32, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.