Evidence for the reversibility of digit loss: a phylogenetic study of limb evolution in Bachia (Gymnophthalmidae: Squamata)

Evolution. 2006 Sep;60(9):1896-912.


Reevolution of lost characters constitutes evidence that the capacity for producing specific phenotypes may remain latent after a trait is lost and be transmitted over many generations without visible effect. Although some evolutionary changes are easily reversible, it can be argued that the reappearance of complex characters would be nearly impossible. This idea is based on the assumption that, after a structure is lost, the genes related to its development will degenerate. In the present paper we test this idea with respect to digit loss in the gymnophthalmid genus Bachia. We present a molecular phylogeny of the genus Bachia and investigate the evolution of digit number in this taxon. Most members of this South American genus have undergone major reduction in hind limbs without ever losing all the digits in the forelimbs. We apply three statistical methods to test the hypothesis that trait loss is irreversible (Dollo's law). These are tree tests, parsimony-cost curves, and likelihood-ratio tests. Data is also analyzed under a simple probability model. All analyses provided strong evidence for reevolution of digit number in derived Bachia species. The evidence is stronger in toes (hind limb) than in fingers (forelimb). Other published examples of reevolution of complex traits are discussed in the light of the statistical approaches used in this paper. We conclude that there are a limited number of cases with strong evidence for the reevolution of lost morphological structures, raising questions about the mechanisms that retain the genetic information for a latent character.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Extremities / anatomy & histology*
  • Lizards / anatomy & histology*
  • Lizards / genetics*
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation
  • Phylogeny*