BACKGROUND: Transitions in habitats and feeding behaviors were fundamental to the diversification of life on Earth. There is ongoing debate regarding the typical directionality of transitions between aquatic and terrestrial habitats and the mechanisms responsible for the preponderance of terrestrial to aquatic transitions. Snail-killing flies (Diptera: Sciomyzidae) represent an excellent model system to study such transitions because their larvae display a range of feeding behaviors, being predators, parasitoids or saprophages of a variety of mollusks in freshwater, shoreline and dry terrestrial habitats. The remarkable genus Tetanocera (Tetanocerini) occupies five larval feeding groups and all of the habitat types mentioned above. This study has four principal objectives: (i) construct a robust estimate of phylogeny for Tetanocera and Tetanocerini, (ii) estimate the evolutionary transitions in larval feeding behaviors and habitats, (iii) test the monophyly of feeding groups and (iv) identify mechanisms underlying sciomyzid habitat and feeding behavior evolution.

RESULTS: Bayesian inference and maximum likelihood analyses of molecular data provided strong support that the Sciomyzini, Tetanocerini and Tetanocera are monophyletic. However, the monophyly of many behavioral groupings was rejected via phylogenetic constraint analyses. We determined that (i) the ancestral sciomyzid lineage was terrestrial, (ii) there was a single terrestrial to aquatic habitat transition early in the evolution of the Tetanocerini and (iii) there were at least 10 independent aquatic to terrestrial habitat transitions and at least 15 feeding behavior transitions during tetanocerine phylogenesis. The ancestor of Tetanocera was aquatic with five lineages making independent transitions to terrestrial habitats and seven making independent transitions in feeding behaviors.

CONCLUSIONS: The preponderance of aquatic to terrestrial transitions in sciomyzids goes against the trend generally observed across eukaryotes. Damp shoreline habitats are likely transitional where larvae can change habitat but still have similar prey available. Transitioning from aquatic to terrestrial habitats is likely easier than the reverse for sciomyzids because morphological characters associated with air-breathing while under the water's surface are lost rather than gained, and sciomyzids originated and diversified during a general drying period in Earth's history. Our results imply that any animal lineage having aquatic and terrestrial members, respiring the same way in both habitats and having the same type of food available in both habitats could show a similar pattern of multiple independent habitat transitions coincident with changes in behavioral and morphological traits.

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Published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, v. 12, 175.

© 2012 Chapman et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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