Fetal Nutrition in Lecithotrophic Squamate Reptiles: Toward a Comprehensive Model for Evolution of Viviparity and Placentation

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The primary pattern of embryonic nutrition for squamate reptiles is lecithotrophy; with few exceptions, all squamate embryos mobilize nutrients from yolk. The evolution of viviparity presents an opportunity for an additional source of embryonic nutrition through delivery of uterine secretions, or placentotrophy. This pattern of embryonic nutrition is thought to evolve through placental supplementation of lecithotrophy, followed by increasing dependence on placentotrophy. This review analyzes the relationship between reproductive mode and pattern of embryonic nutrition in three lecithotrophic viviparous species, and oviparous counterparts, for concordance with a current model for the evolution of viviparity and placentation. The assumptions of the model, that nutrients for oviparous embryos are mobilized from yolk, and that this source is not disrupted in the transition to viviparity, are supported for most nutrients. In contrast, calcium, an essential nutrient for embryonic development, is mobilized from both yolk and eggshell by oviparous embryos and reduction of eggshell calcium is correlated with viviparity. If embryonic fitness is compromised by disruption of a primary source of calcium, selection may not favor evolution of viviparity, yet viviparity has arisen independently in numerous squamate lineages. Studies of fetal nutrition in reproductively bimodal species suggest a resolution to this paradox. If uterine calcium secretion occurs during prolonged intrauterine egg retention, calcium placentotrophy evolves prior to viviparity as a replacement for eggshell calcium and embryonic nutrition will not be compromised. This hypothesis is integrated into the current model for evolution of viviparity and placentation to address the unique attributes of calcium nutrition. The sequence of events requires a shift in timing of uterine calcium secretion and the embryonic mechanism of calcium retrieval to be responsive to calcium availability. Regulation of uterine calcium secretion and the mechanism of embryonic uptake of calcium are important elements to understanding evolution of viviparity and placentation.