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Keywords:

  • Crocodilia;
  • Eusuchia;
  • osmoregulation;
  • evolution;
  • physiology;
  • marine adaptation;
  • biogeography

Crocodylids are better adapted than alligatorids, through a suite of morphological specializations, for life in hyperosmotic environments. The presence of such specializations even in freshwater crocodylids has been interpreted as evidence for a marine phase in crocodylid evolution, consistent with the trans-osceanic migration hypothesis of crocodilian biogeography. The ability to discriminate fresh water from hyperosmotic sea water, and to avoid drinking the latter, is known to be an important osmoregulatory mechanism for estuarine crocodylids. This study was undertaken to determine whether the ability to discriminate between hyper- and hypo-osmotic salinities is determined by habitat, as it is in other normally freshwater reptiles, or whether, like morphological adaptations associated with estuarine life, it has a phylogenetic basis. Two species of freshwater alligatorid were found to drink fresh water and hyperosmotic sea water indiscriminately, while an estuarine population of a normally freshwater alligatorid species drank only fresh water. This indicated that salinity discrimination is determined at least in part by habitat. However, all three crocodylid species tested drank fresh water but not hyperosmotic sea water, suggesting that, in crocodilians, the ability to distinguish between fresh water and sea water is influenced by phylogeny as well as by habitat. The implications of this result are discussed in the context of two alternate hypotheses for the historical biogeography of the Crocodilia.