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Open Access Research article

Reversal to air-driven sound production revealed by a molecular phylogeny of tongueless frogs, family Pipidae

Iker Irisarri1, Miguel Vences2*, Diego San Mauro3, Frank Glaw4 and Rafael Zardoya1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, CSIC, c/José Gutiérrez Abascal 2, Madrid 28006, Spain

2 Department of Evolutionary Biology, Zoological Institute, Technical University of Braunschweig, Spielmannstrasse 8, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany

3 Department of Zoology, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

4 Zoologische Staatssammlung München, Münchhausenstrasse 21, 81247 München, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:114  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-114

Published: 27 April 2011

Abstract

Background

Evolutionary novelties often appear by conferring completely new functions to pre-existing structures or by innovating the mechanism through which a particular function is performed. Sound production plays a central role in the behavior of frogs, which use their calls to delimit territories and attract mates. Therefore, frogs have evolved complex vocal structures capable of producing a wide variety of advertising sounds. It is generally acknowledged that most frogs call by moving an air column from the lungs through the glottis with the remarkable exception of the family Pipidae, whose members share a highly specialized sound production mechanism independent of air movement.

Results

Here, we performed behavioral observations in the poorly known African pipid genus Pseudhymenochirus and document that the sound production in this aquatic frog is almost certainly air-driven. However, morphological comparisons revealed an indisputable pipid nature of Pseudhymenochirus larynx. To place this paradoxical pattern into an evolutionary framework, we reconstructed robust molecular phylogenies of pipids based on complete mitochondrial genomes and nine nuclear protein-coding genes that coincided in placing Pseudhymenochirus nested among other pipids.

Conclusions

We conclude that although Pseudhymenochirus probably has evolved a reversal to the ancestral non-pipid condition of air-driven sound production, the mechanism through which it occurs is an evolutionary innovation based on the derived larynx of pipids. This strengthens the idea that evolutionary solutions to functional problems often emerge based on previous structures, and for this reason, innovations largely depend on possibilities and constraints predefined by the particular history of each lineage.