Patterns of variation in the phalangeal formulae of land tortoises (Testudinidae): Developmental constraint, size, and phylogenetic history



Documentation of variation in phalangeal formulae in land tortoises combined with ontogenetic information from turtles in general were used, in a phylogenetic context, to infer the potential effect of size and developmental constraints upon patterns of morphological variation. A sample of 201 specimens and published illustrations of 37 tortoise species were examined, representing all but one living genera and most species of the Testudinidae. Specimens were either articulated dry skeletons or preserved animals that were x-rayed. The patterns of digital and phalangeal loss in tortoises were predicted from developmental studies of the manus and pes in other turtles. If a digit is lost, it is the first digit, which is the last one to develop. If a digit has a single phalanx, it is usually the fifth digit. The primitive phalangeal formula for land tortoises is probably 2–2–2–2–1, the most common pattern found in living testudinid species. The presence of a second phalanx in the fifth digit evolved independently many times and usually in large tortoises. Such additions were interpreted as instances of peramorphosis. Many small tortoises have a full complement of digits (five) and phalanges (two in each digit); nevertheless, phalangeal and digital loss is associated with small size. Small and medium size tortoises exhibit greater variation in phalangeal number than do large tortoises. We hypothesize that epigenetic processes, and not simply adaptation, played a major role in the evolution of the variation in phalangeal formulae in tortoises. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 302B:134–146, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.