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  • Extinct Reptiles » Crurotarsi
  • New study shreds the dinosaur family tree (and exposes double-standards in Phylogenetic Nomenclature)

    Figurative illustration of the new phylogeny by Baron et al. 2017

    Most folks who visit my site by now have seen the big dinosaur news that has hit the interwebs. A new study from Matthew Baron, David Norman and Paul Barrett from University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum of London, has seriously challenged the classic interpretation of dinosaur phylogeny.

    Baron, M.G., Norman, D.B., Barrett, P.M. 2017. A New Hypothesis of Dinosaur Relationships and Early Dinosaur Evolution. Nature. 543:501–512.

    Classical dinosaur phylogenetics

    Although originally thought of as two unrelated branches of Reptilia that grew to immense size during the Mesozoic (e.g., Charig et al. 1965), for the last 43 years the group, Dinosauria, has been considered monophyletic (i.e., sharing a single origin) with the subgroups, Saurischia & Ornithischia, forming the first major branches within the group (Bakker et al. 1974). Saurischians, or “reptile hips” were aligned together by their similar hip shapes, skull characters (e.g., open antorbital fenestrae), and inferred soft tissues (e.g., air sacs). Ornithischians, or “bird hips” shared a hip structure that was superficially similar to that of birds, with a pubis that pointed caudally rather than rostrally, along with a variety of unique skull characters such as a neomorphic bone known as the predentary.

    Study after study showed that this relationship was sound, and so it stayed that way. The problem with getting the same answer over and over again is that one eventually stops questioning it. Consistent results become  common knowledge, and may even graduate to dogma. That’s not so bad if that common knowledge is true, but all too often many of these “obvious” cases wind up being just so stories upon closer inspection.

    Continue reading  Post ID 1652

  • Tall spines and sailed backs: A survey of sailbacks across time

    One of the quintessential depictions of prehistoric times is that of an ancient, often volcano ridden, landscape full of animals bearing large showy sails of skin stretched over their backs. Sailbacked animals are rather rare in our modern day and age, but back in the Mesozoic and Paleozoic there were sails a plenty.

    By far the most popular sailbacked taxa of all time would be the pelycosaurs in the genus Dimetrodon. These were some of the largest predators of the Permian (up to 4.6 meters [15 feet] long in the largest species). Dimetrodon lived alongside other sailbacked pelycosaurs including the genus Edaphosaurus. These were large herbivores (~3.5 m [11.5 ft] in length) that evolved their sails independently from Dimetrodon. The Permian saw many species of sphenacodontids and edaphosaurids, many of which sported these showy sails (Fig. 1. [1–8]).

    Fig. 1. A brief survey of the sailbacks of prehistory. Permian sailbacks, the sphenacodontids: Dimetrodon(1), Sphenacodon(2), Secodontosaurus(3), and Ctenospondylus(4). The edaphosaurids: Edaphosaurus(5), Ianthasaurus (6), Echinerpeton(7), Lupeosaurus(8). The temnospondyl: Platyhystrix(9). Triassic sailbacks, the rauisuchians: Arizonasaurus(10), Ctenosauriscus(11), Lotosaurus(12), and Xilousuchus(13). Cretaceous sailbacks, the theropods: Spinosaurus(14), Suchomimus (15), Acrocanthosaurus (16), and Concavenator (17). The ornithopod: Ouranosaurus (18), and the sauropod: Amargasaurus (19). Image credits: Dmitry Bogdanov (1–2, 8, 14–15), Arthur Weaseley (5, 19), Smokeybjb (7), Nobu Tamura (3–4, 6, 8–9, 10–12), Sterling Nesbitt (13), Laurel D. Austin (16), Steven O’Connor (17), Sergio Pérez (18).

    However sails were hardly a pelycosaur novelty. The contemporaneous temnospondyl Platyhystrix rugosus (Fig. 1 [9]) also adorned a showy sail.

    Fast forward 47 million years into the Triassic and we find the rauisuchians Arizonasaurus babbitti, Lotosaurus adentus, Xilousuchus sapingensis, and Ctenosauriscus koeneniall bearing showing sails on their backs (Fig. 1 [10–13]). Much like in the Permian, many of these taxa were contemporaneous and, while related, many likely evolved their sails separately from one another.

    There are currently no fossils of sailbacked tetrapods in the Jurassic (as far as I know. Feel free to chime in in the comments if you know of some examples). However the Early Cretaceous gave  us a preponderance of sailbacked dinosaurs (Fig. 1 [14–19]) including the cinematically famous theropod Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, the contemporaneous hadrosaur Ouranosaurus nigeriensis, the gharial-mimic Suchomimus tenerensis, the potentially dual sailed sauropod Amargasaurus cazaui, as well as the allosauroids Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and Concavenator corcovatus. Lastly, the discovery announced last year (and just now coming to light in the news) of better remains for the giant ornithomimid Deinocheirus mirificus have revealed that it too may have sported a small sail along its back.

    Once again we find a group of related, largely contemporaneous, animals, most of which probably evolved their sails separately.

    Such a huge collection of sailbacked animals all living around the same time (and sometimes the same place) has begged for some type of functional explanation. The usual go-to for large, showy surfaces like these or the plates of Stegosaurus has been thermoregulation. The thinking being that blood pumped through a large surface area like this, when exposed to the sun, has the ability to warm up faster than other areas of the body. Conversely when the sail is placed crosswise to a wind stream, or parallel to the orientation of the sun, heat will radiate out into the environment faster than other areas of the body. That most sailbacked dinosaurs were “localized” to equatorial areas, coupled with the large sizes of all the taxa (1-10 tonnes depending in species) has favoured a cooling mechanism function for dinosaur sails. Whereas a heating function has been presumed to be the primary function for sails in Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. No real function has been ascribed to the sails in rauisuchians or Platyhystrix, though this is probably due to a lack of knowledge/interest in these groups.

    Alternate functions proposed for these sails have included a self-righting mechanism for swimming, sexual signaling and other presumed display functions. In certain cases, namely Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and Ouranosaurus nigeriensis, it has even been argued that the enlarged spines did not support a sail, but rather were supports for a large, fatty hump akin to that of camels or bison (Bailey 1996, 1997).

    Given the wealth of hypotheses for potential sail functions it would be beneficial to first understand what extant sailbacked taxa use their sails for. Unfortunately—though unsurprisingly—there are few if any scientific studies on sail use in extant sailbacked animals. This has lead to the apparent assumption that there are no extant vertebrates with sailbacks.

    There are, in fact, quite a few sailbacked animals alive today. These include various fish, amphibians and even reptile species. Learning what these taxa use their sails for may offer us a glimpse at what extinct animals were doing with their sails.
    Continue reading  Post ID 1652

  • Bad-ass shield crocs, or: Another weird Mesozoic crocodyliform

    Aegisuchus witmeri goes to town on a Mesozoic lungfish. Illustration by the talented Henry Tsai

    Oh hey look, the blog has come to life again, if just for a bit. As has been typical these few years, things IRL have taken up much of my time and the website has suffered because of it. I still have a few posts that I have been sitting on as I try to find the time to finish them. Until then small updates like this will have to do.

    Just announced today in the journal PLoS ONE:

    Holliday, C.M. and Gardner, N.M. 2012. A New Eusuchian Crocodyliform with Novel Cranial Integument and Its Significance for the Origin and Evolution of Crocodylia. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30471. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030471

    Congratulations to the internet’s own Nick Gardnerfor helping get this guy published.

    Stomatosuchus was the quintessential "duck faced" croc. Illustration by Dmitry Bogdanov

    The croc in question Aegisuchus witmeri was a member of the Aegyptosuchids. They were a strange group of eusuchians that are known mostly for their weird, flat “duck faces.” As there are no living crocodylians that even come close to these guys in skull shape, it is difficult to imagine what these guys were doing with these flattened rostra. One hypothesis was that, given their numerous small teeth, these guys were filter feeders.

    Holliday and Gardner describe a preserved braincase and compare it to other published data on Aegyptosuchids. Results suggest that this guy was huge by modern croc standards (~9 meters) and no slouch for a Mesozoic croc. Muscle scars indicate the presence of strong jaw opening abilities in this taxa, which would go well for a possible filter, or suction feeder.

    Probably the most interesting feature of this guy, and the one likely to spark the most controversy, was the presence of an enlarged boss on the top of the skull. Inferred vasculature to this region suggest that Aegisuchus witmeri was using this part of its skull for something. That thing might have been a display structure such as an “eyespot” or just a particularly bright patch of skin. Though speculative, there are reasons to consider this possibility, including the fact that extant crocodylians use their heads in all manner of displays.

    All in all this was a pretty cool critter. The species epithet was named in honour of professor Lawrence Witmer, PhD, prolific paleontologist, comparative anatomist and even blogger. He is my mentor and was Dr. Holliday’s back in his PhD days. It might not be Archaeopteryx, but getting named after a bad-ass ancient crocodile isn’t half bad.



  • Turns out that plesiosaurs gave birth to live young. It’s about damned time.

    _Polycotylus latippinus_ mother giving birth to young in a very cetacean-like fashion. Illustration by: S. Abramowicz

    Just announced today in Science, researchers at the Marshall University and the Los Angeles County Museum described the presence of fossil young inside the body of the plesiosaur: Polycotylus latippinus. The results of their find seem to confirm what has been suspected for quite some time now, that plesiosaurs were viviparous animals.

    O’Keefe, F.R., Chiappe, L.M. 2011. Viviparity and K-Selected Life History in a Mesozoic Marine Plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia). Science. Vol.333(6044):870-873

    The evidence had been mounting for some time now. While plesiosaurs came in numerous shapes and sizes, most of those sizes were in the large to giant range measuring in at multiple tonnes (e.g. Liopleurodon and Kronosaurus). That is a lot of weight to attempt to drag up on a beach for egg laying. Further, though the rib cage is well braced ventrally, the limb girdles are not braced against the vertebral column. This would make it very hard for a large landlubbing plesiosaur to make any kind of headway as the limbs would have no leverage against the body for dragging itself on land.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we have known of at least one plesiosaur fossil that had embryos in it. This has been known for at least five years now (I learned of it four years ago, and it has been hinted at before [Smith 2008]). Sadly this specimen still remains unpublished. This new paper by O’Keefe and Chiappe goes on to mention the relatively large size of the young, estimated at 1.5 meters when born. This was much larger than the young of other large extinct and extant marine reptiles. The authors (cautiously) suggest that this might hint at a different life history for plesiosaurs vs. other marine reptiles. They posit that plesiosaurs might have nurtured a small amount of relatively large young, which in turn might have meant that they were more social than previously thought.

    Naturally this has resulted in the inevitable comparison to whales. While a “pod of plesiosaurs” does sound interesting, we have far too little evidence to say if such a thing ever happened (and the authors state this too). What we do know is that young plesiosaurs have been found in shallow marine settings. These have been posited to have been “nurseries” where young could stay out of sight from predators while reaching adult size (Martin et al. 2007). Whether, or not adults stayed around, or if they joined a “pod” later (if at all) is all unknown. Still, it is nice to see some validation to what seemed almost necessary for so long.

    Admittedly not everyone is convinced (a good thing to see in science). Dr. Ken Carpenter of the Utah State Museum offered Science magazine a dissenting view, suggesting that the position of the young could still indicate that these were juveniles that had been eaten. The O’Keefe and Chiappe considered this in the paper and pointed out that the skeletons lacked any signs of acid etching, as well as showed numerous skeletal bones that did not appear fully ossified. Further analysis could shed more light on this. Publishing on that other plesiosaur could really help things out too.

    Viviparity - could these guys be next? Image from the Nature Museum in Stuttgart.

    Assuming that we are looking at viviparous plesiosaurs, that just leaves two other large marine reptile groups of the Mesozoic. Turtles and Crocodylomorphs. In both cases we have extant animals that are obligate oviparous animals, but there might still be reason to think that live birth might have evolved in these groups too. Again, much like with the plesiosaurs, the groups in question (protostegid sea turtles and the podocnemid Stupdendemys, as well as metriorhynchid crocodylomorphs) have members that grew extremely large. While Protostega gigas may have been able to haul itself out on land as extant leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) do, it seems harder to justify that in the much larger Archelon ischyros; an animal that has been estimated to tip the scales at 2 tonnes. Given the amount of effort it takes a large female leatherback (~1 tonne) to haul herself up and down a beach (not to mention the damage it causes to the animals in the short term), it would be all the more amazing if A.ischyros was able to pull off such a feat. The same would go for the metriorhynchids, who had adapted completely to a marine lifestyle (i.e. they had flippers and a tailfin). If a 5 meter Gavialis gangeticus can barely move around on land, I’d hate to see what a 5 meter Dakosaurus would look like. To date we have no evidence one way, or the other for these last two groups. There is a bit more resistance to the idea of viviparity in these groups as no extant members exhibit viviparity. This has lead some to wonder if the calcified eggs of archosaurs (and many chelonians) might prove a phylogenetic constraint on live bearing (the young absorb calcium from the shell, which could mess up calcium absorption in a taxon evolving along the lines of viviparity). The chelonian shell — in turn — may also have been constraining on the size of young that can be held in the body cavity. Still, to date, there are no nests, eggs, or embryos for any of these taxa, thus leaving the matter open for debate. It is interesting that neither protostegids, nor metriorhynchids got to the huge sizes of mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, but that could have been for any number of reasons including the simple lack of finding the larger taxa yet. Until then the physics vs. phylogeny argument remains unresolved.

    Anyway, compelling evidence for live bearing in at least some plesiosaurs. Woohoo!



    Martin, J., Sawyer, F., Reguero, M. Case, J.A. 2007. Occurrence of a Young Elasmosaurid Plesiosaur Skeleton from the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of Antarctica. 10th Int.Symp.Antarctic Earth Sciences.
    O’Keefe, F.R., Chiappe, L.M. 2011. Viviparity and K-Selected Life History in a Mesozoic Marine Plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia). Science. Vol.333(6044):870-873
    Smith, A.S. 2008. Fossils Explained 54: Plesiosaurs. Geol.Today. Vol.24(2):71-75


  • Land lubbing crocs get their day in the sun. Also, there’s a varanid special on NOVA.

    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."
    Dr. Paul Sereno stands with others at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Note the wheelbarrow like retroarticular processes on the "boar croc."

    After spending? a few years collecting and looking at the weirdness that is Gondwanan crocodyliformes, Dr. Paul Sereno has finally started to unveil stuff. With the help of National Geographic comes When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs. It appears to be a special that focuses on the remarkable – and often underrated – diversity seen within this group of animals. The highlight of the program (at least in my opinion) is the focus on all the very un-crocodile like crocodyliformes.

    The National Geographic website has a special section that shows off the various, apparently unnamed, taxa. For now, there are just placeholder names that will likely hurt the eyes and ears of anyone who had to deal with the aftermath of The Land Before Time.

    The artwork is by artist Todd Marshall. I’ve always enjoyed his portrayals of prehistoric reptiles (he tends to get almost too fanciful with dewlaps and spikes though). Sadly the accompanying animations do not do Marshall’s incredible artwork justice.? It will be interesting to see how it all gets integrated into the television show.

    Also airing tonight is a special on NOVA entitled: Lizard Kings. It features the work of Dr. Eric Pianka; a well known and respected lizard ecologist who has focused on monitors for much of his career.? The special looks to be very interesting. Especially given that it appears to have taken years for the film crew to get the footage they needed. As you read this the special has already aired. However, PBS does make their shows avaialable to watch online for free, on their website. The show should also be viewable on Hulu by tomorrow.

    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.
    A perentie monitor (_Varanus giganteus_) poses for the camera.

    I realize that both of these options are only available in the states. To date there seems to be no international options. At best there are some workarounds.

    Still, for those that can get them, both shows should prove to be entertaining.


  • Bow down to the warrior croc _Guarinisuchus munizi_

    Recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists in Brazil have found the remains of a prehistoric crocodyliforme that used to roam the oceans of the Paleocene.

    The critter has been given the name: Guarinisuchus munizi, which translates out to: Muniz’s warrior crocodile. Despite the “crocodile” in its name, G.munizi was not that closely related to true crocodylians. It was more closely related to the giant pholidosaur Sarcosuchus imperator.

    Guarinisuchus muniziSarcosuchus

    Close relative of Guarinisuchus munizi [left] was Sarcosuchus imperator [right]. Not true crocodiles.

    The neat thing about the paper, was not so much the crocodyliforme itself. At 3 meters, G.munizi was small for a dyrosaurid. Rather, it is the implications of this find that are intriguing.

    Dyrosaurids first appeared in the Late Cretaceous Period (Maastrichtian age) . During this time they were very scarce, and hard to find. They were shallow marine predators, and in the Cretaceous that niche was already filled by another group of animals: the mosasaurs.

    These ancient sea lizards had one of the fastest diversification rates of any vertebrate group studied. They went from nothing to dozens of species with a cosmopolitan distribution and domination of many ecological niches. All of this occurred in the space of only 25 million years! That’s faster than mammal diversification, and faster than dinosaur diversification.

    Mosasaurs were showing no signs of slowing down right up to the K/T asteroid event. After that, they disappeared.

    That’s when the dyrosaurids started taking over.

    Analysis of Guarinisuchus munizi material has found that it is more closely related to African taxa than its geographically closer relatives in North America. This suggests that dyrosaurids had crossed the Atlantic ocean from Africa sometime before the K/T event. After said event, the vacant niches left by the mosasaurs were quickly snatched up by these dyrosaurids, as they moved up North, and eventually, worldwide.

    It is interesting to see how this group of animals was apparently held back during their earlier evolution. Yet, if they hadn’t been held back; if they had out-competed mosasaurs for the top spot in the food chain, then they wouldn’t have survived the K/T event.

    It’s funny – and completely make believe – but it almost appears as if dyrosaurids were already setting themselves up to take over. It’s almost as if they knew…

    They didn’t of course, but it’s fun to pretend that they did. >:)


  • The fibrolamellar smoking gun.


    Three different types of bone growth scene in vertebrates. A. Low vascular, lamellar bone. B, highly vascular, woven bone. C. Fibrolamellar bone. Arrows indicate Lines of Arrested Growth (LAGs). Image from http://ltc.smm.org/histology/
    Three different types of bone growth seen in vertebrates. A. Low vascular, lamellar bone. B, highly vascular, woven bone. C. Fibrolamellar bone. Arrows indicate Lines of Arrested Growth (LAGs). Image from http://ltc.smm.org/histology/


    For over twenty years now it has been assumed that there is a black and white divide between bone histology and thermophysiology. Automatic endothermic “warm blooded” animals tend to show a haphazard composition of bone deposition, in which bone is laid down around surrounding blood vessels very quickly, with interspersals of more organized bone deposition (for strength). The term, coined by histologist Armand de Ricqles (1980), is fibrolamellar bone.

    In contrast, bradymetabolic “cold-blooded” animals tend to show a regular deposition of layered, or lamellar zonal bone. This bone is not as well vascularized as fibrolamellar bone, and is often deposited at a much slower rate.

    Back in 1980, this evidence was used along with a chain of other circumstantial evidence to show that dinosaurs were actually “warm-blooded” animals (Bakker, 1980). This challenge did not go unanswered, and even back then there were people questioning the evidence being proposed in favour of dinosaurian automatic endothermy. As far back as 1982, there were authours claiming to have histological evidence of fibrolamellar, “warm-blooded” bone growth in crocodylians (Ferguson et al, 1982). This evidence has often been scoffed at as being questionable at best (Horner & Padian, 2004). Skeptics have pointed out that the fibrolamellar crocodylians mentioned have all been captives. Being kept in a stable environment with easy access to food has resulted in these skewed results. Wild individuals would doubtfully show these traits, as access to scenarios like those provided in captivity, are unlikely.

    For awhile this seemed to keep the argument of fibrolamellar bone, strictly in the pro-automatic endotherm camp. Well, not anymore.

    Tumarkin-Deratzian, A.R. 2007. Fibrolamellar bone in adult Alligator mississippiensis. Journal of Herpetology. Vol. 41. No.2:341-345.

    This paper reports the observation of long bone histology in alligators from Lake Griffin in Lake County, Florida. The findings are most interesting. Seven specimens were studied. Of these, three had extensive fibrolamellar growth in their long bones. In fact, one could put a fibrolamellar individual next to a lamellar zone individual and it would look like one was comparing a “classic mammal” to a “classic reptile.” The difference is incredibly dramatic; even moreso than comparing frame A with frame C in the above picture.
    That’s not the best part though. You see, these lake Griffin alligators were not only wild animals, but they were stressed animals too. Currently the Lake Griffin alligator population is suffering from an intense die off. The reasons behind the high mortality at Lake Griffin remain uncertain, but there seems to be a link to thiamine deficiency in the animals dying.

    This means that, not only are we seeing different bone deposition patterns in animals from the same population, but we are also seeing them from animals that were living under stressed conditions. This throws the whole “crocodylians can only show automatic endothermic growth rates under perfect conditions” argument right out the window.

    So what does fibrolamellar deposition really show? Currently it remains unknown. It might still indicate faster growth. What it doesn’t indicate, though, is the thermophysiological preference of the animal in question.

    Id est: it doesn’t seperate the “warm-bloods” from the “cold-bloods.”

    More to come. Stay tuned.


    Bakker, R. 1980. “The Need for Endothermic Archosaurs.” In: Thomas, R. D. K., and Olson, F. C. (eds.). A Cold Look at the Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs. Westview Press, Boulder.
    de Ricqles, A. J. 1980. “Tissue structures of dinosaur bone: Functional significance and possible relation to dinosaur physiology.” In: Thomas, R. D. K., and Olson, F. C. (eds.). A Cold Look at the Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs. Westview Press, Boulder. Pp. 103-139.
    Ferguson, M.W.J., Honig, L.S., Bingas Jr, P., Slavkin, H.C. 1982. In vivo and in vitro development of first branchial arch derivatives in Alligator mississippiensis. Progress in Clinical nad Biological Research. Vol. 101: 275-286.
    Padian, K. and Horner, J.R. 2004. “Dinosaur Physiology.” In: Weishampel, D.B., Dodson, P. and Osmolska, H. (eds.), The Dinosauria 2nd edition. Univ. California Press., Berkeley. pp. 660-671.