Feeding behaviour in a 'basal' tortoise provides insights on the transitional feeding mode at the dawn of modern land turtle evolution

PeerJ. 2015 Aug 11;3:e1172. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1172. eCollection 2015.


Almost all extant testudinids are highly associated with terrestrial habitats and the few tortoises with high affinity to aquatic environments are found within the genus Manouria. Manouria belongs to a clade which forms a sister taxon to all remaining tortoises and is suitable as a model for studying evolutionary transitions within modern turtles. We analysed the feeding behaviour of Manouria emys and due to its phylogenetic position, we hypothesise that the species might have retained some ancestral features associated with an aquatic lifestyle. We tested whether M. emys is able to feed both in aquatic and terrestrial environments. In fact, M. emys repetitively tried to reach submerged food items in water, but always failed to grasp them-no suction feeding mechanism was applied. When feeding on land, M. emys showed another peculiar behaviour; it grasped food items by its jaws-a behaviour typical for aquatic or semiaquatic turtles-and not by the tongue as generally accepted as the typical feeding mode in all tortoises studied so far. In M. emys, the hyolingual complex remained retracted during all food uptake sequences, but the food transport was entirely lingual based. The kinematical profiles significantly differed from those described for other tortoises and from those proposed from the general models on the function of the feeding systems in lower tetrapods. We conclude that the feeding behaviour of M. emys might reflect a remnant of the primordial condition expected in the aquatic ancestor of the tortoises.

Keywords: Evolution; Feeding kinematics; Food uptake; Tetrapoda; Transition to land; Turtle.

Grant support

The study was funded by FWF Austrian Science Fund, Project no. P20094-B17 on that EH and NN were employed and the Advanced Postdoc Mobility fund P300P3_158526 of the Swiss National Science Foundation granted to IW. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.