Remarks on the residual color patterns in the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves
Residual color patterns in the form of visible pigmentation on fossil molluscan shells are generally uncommon2. In the Paleozoic to Mesozoic fossil records, the color patterns were limited to marine species2, which are preserved as black to dark-colored bands running on the shell surface as melanin pigments19,20. The black to dark-colored stripes on the shells of the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves resemble the color patterns in some extant freshwater bivalves, suggesting that the dark bands are residual color patterns remaining as melanin pigments. Consequently, the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves represents the oldest and second fossil record of residual color patterns among fossil freshwater bivalves.
The residual color patterns of the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves resemble the color patterns of extant freshwater bivalves in terms of width, number, and distribution of the colored bands. Both the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves and extant freshwater bivalves examined in this study consist of two types of color patterns: stripes along the growth lines and radial rays tapered toward the umbo. Notably, the former pattern is similar among all the species examined, as it forms in the peripheries of prominent growth lines occurring periodically. In the latter pattern, however, the morphology and distribution of the bands are slightly different between the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves and the extant species. The Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves exhibits relatively distinct and wide radial rays running roughly parallel to the lengths of the sculpture elements (radial plications and/or wrinkles), while the extant species bear obscure and fine radial rays running diagonally to the lengths of the sculpture elements. Nonetheless, the taxa with V-shaped sculpture elements (wrinkles, ribs or arranged nodules) lack or bear ambiguous radial rays, whether extant (e.g., Triplodon spp., Indochinella spp. and Tritogonia spp.)13,16,21 or extinct (Trigonioides tetoriensis).
The factor for evolutionary conservatism: habitat
The resemblance of the color patterns between the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves and the extant species indicates that the color patterns of the freshwater bivalves have remained unchanged for about 120 million years, representing an extreme evolutionary conservatism. Such evolutionary conservatism has been reported in the middle-Cretaceous fossil land snails22 and beetles23,24, both of which exhibit an external morphology similar to the respective extant taxa. These taxa demonstrate evolutionary conservatism in their morphology for adapting to lurking under leaf litter, fallen leaves, logs, and rocks, which are ubiquitous throughout the Mesozoic and Cenozoic22,23,24. Molluscan shell colors and their patterns are generally influenced by their habitats6,11,25. Considering marine mollusks, the shell colors and their patterns have great diversity due to varying habitat environments, especially in coral reeves that exhibit various colors and complex ecosystem6,11. Conversely, in the freshwater ecosystem, the environmental colors are relatively monotonous with rocks, sand, mud, and green algae11, and such habitat conditions are likely indifferent between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. As a result, the freshwater bivalves retained simple and monotonous color patterns for adapting to such environments throughout their evolution.
The factor for evolutionary conservatism: predation pressure
Another conceivable factor to explain the evolutionary conservatism in the color patterns of freshwater bivalves is the selection pressure for visual predators. In general, the shell colors and their patterns in bivalves act as camouflages against visual predators2,7,8,9,10,26,27,28. Previous studies have demonstrated that extant freshwater bivalves are preyed upon by crayfish, fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals29,30. Because shell colors in freshwater bivalves tend to be greenish, such colors may be an adaptation against visual predators for blending into the freshwater sediments on which abundant greenish phytoplanktons occur6,11. Therefore, the evolutionary conservatism in color patterns of freshwater bivalves may result from camouflages into freshwater microenvironments, which has been advantageous against visual predators since the late Early Cretaceous.
The above discussion assumes that the visual predators of freshwater bivalves remained similar for at least 120 million years. Which animals could have been potential threads to the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves, and, in turn, the Early Cretaceous freshwater bivalves? Among the extant visual predators of the freshwater bivalves, those whose lineages were present in the Early Cretaceous include crustaceans (especially brachyuran decapoda31), fish, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, birds, and mammals. Among them, the fossil record of durophagous lizards and mammals can be traced back only to the Late Cretaceous32,33. Conversely, lines of fossil evidence suggest that some fish34,35, turtles36, and crocodiles35 fed on molluscan invertebrates during the Early Cretaceous, and the Kitadani Freshwater Bivalves indeed occurs with abundant lepisosteiform scales, testudinate shells and crocodile teeth. Additionally, at least one Early Cretaceous avian species with crustacean gut contents can be attributed to the durophagous diet37, and the Kitadani Formation has yielded avialan skeletal remains38, and footprints39,40. Therefore, fish, turtles, crocodiles, and birds are likely candidates for visual predators of the Early Cretaceous freshwater bivalves, and have remained so until present. Additionally, while crustaceans have not been identified in the Kitadani Formation, they flourished in the Early Cretaceous and their remains occur with the fossil freshwater bivalves of the time elsewhere31. Thus, crustaceans may have also played a role as visual predators of the freshwater bivalves since the Early Cretaceous.
In addition to the crustaceans, fishes, turtles, crocodiles and birds, the visual predators of the Early Cretaceous freshwater bivalves likely include extinct lineages. For example, some pliosauroid plesiosaurs are suggested as being durophagous34, although the freshwater members of the group are considered endemic41 and less likely to be a major thread to the Early Cretaceous freshwater bivalves. Another extinct candidate is non-avian dinosaurs. Ornithischians are suggested to have possessed a dietary flexibility including the durophagy. For instance, well-preserved hadrosaurid coprolites from the Late Cretaceous of Montana, U.S.A. include sizeable crustaceans and mollusks, possibly suggesting that the Cretaceous freshwater mollusks were consumed by these herbivorous dinosaurs42. In addition, some basal ceratopsian psittacosaurids are hypothesized for the durophagy based on the predicted large bite force in the caudal portion of the toothrow43. Among saurischians, some oviraptorosaurian theropods are indicated to consume mollusks with hard shells based on their mandibular features44. While hadrosaurids, psittacosaurids, and oviraptorosaurians have not been identified in the Kitadani Formation, psittacosaurids, and oviraptorosaurians are common elsewhere in the Early Cretaceous of East Asia45,46, and hadrosauroid Koshisaurus is present in the formation47. Because dinosaurs occupied a niche of large terrestrial predators throughout the Mesozoic, they may have acted as one of major mollusk consumers in absence of large lizards and mammals in the Early Cretaceous ecosystem. Thus, the predation pressure by visual predators to the freshwater bivalves in the Early Cretaceous is likely similar to that in the present. Consequently, one of evolutionary adaptations of the freshwater bivalves against such pressure has remained to camouflage in the phytoplankton-rich sediments, leading to the long-term evolutionary conservatism of their color patterns.