Placental Specializations in Lecithotrophic Viviparous Squamate Reptiles

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Squamate reptiles have been thought to be predisposed to evolution of viviparity because embryos of most oviparous species undergo considerable development in the uterus prior to oviposition. A related hypothesis proposes that prolonged intrauterine gestation, an intermediate condition leading to viviparity, requires little or no physiological adjustment, other than reduction in thickness of the eggshell. This logical framework is often accompanied by an assumption that mode of parity (oviparity, viviparity) and pattern of embryonic nutrition (lecithotrophy, placentotrophy) are independent traits that evolve in sequence. Thus, specializations for viviparity should be absent in some lecithotrophic viviparous species. Studies of species of lizards with geographic variation in mode of parity challenge this scenario by demonstrating that placental specializations are correlated with viviparity. Uterine specializations for placental transport of calcium to viviparous embryos alter uterine physiology compared to oviparous females. In addition, comparative studies of oviparous and viviparous species, i.e., in which gene flow is disrupted, reveal that both uterine and embryonic structural modifications are commonly associated with viviparity, suggesting relatively rapid evolution of placental specializations. Studies of squamate reproductive biology support two hypotheses: 1) evolution of viviparity requires physiological adjustments of the uterine environment, and 2) evolution of viviparity promotes relatively rapid adaptations for placentation. Models for the evolution of viviparity from oviparity, or for reversals from viviparity to oviparity, should reflect current understanding of squamate reproductive biology and future studies should be designed to challenge these models.