The Origin and Evolution of Ichthyosaurs

Wikipedia reports: “Ichthyosaurs thrived during much of the Mesozoic era; based on fossil evidence, they first appeared approximately 245 million years ago (mya) and disappeared about 90 million years ago, about 25 million years before the dinosaurs became extinct. During the middle Triassic Period, ichthyosaurs evolved from as-yet unidentified land reptiles that moved back into the water, in a development parallel to that of the ancestors of modern-day dolphins and whales.”

Well, here we’re going to identify those “unidentified” land animals as the ancestors of ichthyosaurs: They’re mesosaurs.

It’s not difficult to figure out which reptiles were the closest to ichthyosaurs. All you have to do is include representatives from all the major groups and run their characters through phylogenetic analysis. The ones most like ichthyosaurs will nest on a tree closest to ichthyosaurs. Such a study has never been undertaken before. Typically a few suprageneric (above the level of genus) taxa are chosen. This gives no opportunity for individual genera within a larger clade to step up to the plate and nest as sister taxa. This also allows cheating, the ability to cherry pick traits from several taxa within a clade to create a chimaera taxon.

Here is the tree I used (and it keeps growing and growing):

The Reptile Tree

Figure 2. The Reptile Family Tree and the Evolution of Ichthyosaurs. Here you can trace the evolution of ichthyosaurs (represented by Utatsusaurus) all the way back to Ichthyostega.

Past Mistakes Based on Using Suprageneric Taxa
Motani (1998) linked ichthyosaurs to Younginiforms  or to Coelurosauravus (a gliding reptile) through Saurosternon. Unfortunately, Motani used suprageneric taxa and did not include mesosaurs.

Maisch (2010) nested ichthyosaurs either with mesosaurs within the diapsida (which is generally correct) or with Procolophon, an anapsid turtle sister. The connection was never spelled out, perhaps because of his use of suprageneric taxa. In fact, Maisch threw up his hands when he reported, “In the case of the ichthyosaurs we know that they are amniotes, and that they are not synapsids… Whether ichthyosaurs are diapsids, and if so, where exactly they have to be placed within the Diapsida, or whether they are parareptiles, and if so, whether they are related to mesosaurs or not, these are questions that remain as unresolved as one hundred years ago.”


Figure 2. Click to enlarge. The origin of ichthyosaurs and thalattosaurs from basal diapsids and basal mesosaurs. Relationships are rather apparent when seen in this context.

Figure 2. Click to enlarge. The origin of ichthyosaurs and thalattosaurs from basal diapsids and basal mesosaurs. Relationships are rather apparent when seen in this context.

Here is the Ancestral Lineage of Ichthyosaurs
Starting with the basal diapsid, Petrolacosaurus and moving toward the basal enaliosaur, Claudiosaurus, the skull size was reduced (but probably not to the extents seen in Claudiosaurus) and the limbs become smaller and probably webbed. Hovasaurus was a sister to Claudiosaurus. Small-skulled Pachypleurosaurus was another sister to Claudiosaurus that nested at the base of the Sauropterygia.

Stereosternum is a somewhat forgotten taxon, but it represents a basal mesosaur, before all the temporal fenestra were closed off. The skull was not so small, the rostrum was elongated and the ribs became thicker. Mesosaurus was a derived sister, but too specialized in a different direction.

Wumengosaurus was considered an odd pachypleurosaur (Wu et al. 2011), but Wumengosaurus nests closer to the base of the ichthyosauria including Hupehsuchus. The quadratojugal was greatly reduced, eliminating the lower temporal bar, as in sauropterygians and ichthyosaurs.

Askeptosaurus was a thalattosaur, a sister taxa to the ichthyosaurs. Overall it retained the shape of a mesosaur, but the skull openings were reduced on top and expanded to the sides.

Hupehsuchus is a basal ichthyosauriform specialized without teeth. Even so it is the closest sister taxon known to basal ichthyosaurs represented by Utatsusaurus, a basal ichthyosaur.

In Summary
The long term trend in the evolution of ichthyosaurs was to enlarge the body overall, elongate the rostrum, shorten the neck, deepen the torso, reduce the thickness of the ribs, shorten the tail and give it a dorsal kink, reduce the limbs and turn them into paddles.

There is no more parsimonious solution among the tested reptiles. And the resemblances between each sister taxon are in line with the small steps that evolution takes. You can read more details starting here.

Evidence and support in the form of nexus, pdf and jpeg files will be sent to all who request additional data.

Carroll RL and Dong Z-M 1991. Hupehsuchus, an enigmatic aquatic reptile from the Triassic of China, and the problem of establishing relationships. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B 28 331:131-153.
Cope ED 1886. A contribution to the vertebrate paleontology of Brazil. Stereosternum tumidum, gen. et sp. nov. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23 (121):1-21.
Gervais P 1865. Du Mesosaurus tenuidens, reptile fossile de l’Afrique australe. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie de Sciences 60:950–955.
Jiang D-Y, Rieppel O, Motani R, Hao W-C, Sun Y-I, Schmitz L and Sun Z-Y. 2008. A new middle Triassic eosauropterygian (Reptilia, Sauropterygia) from southwestern China. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28:1055–1062.
Maisch MW 2010. Phylogeny, systematics, and origin of the Ichthyosauria – the state of the art. Palaeodiversity 3: 151-214.
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Modesto SP 2006. The cranial skeleton of the Early Permian aquatic reptile Mesosaurus tenuidens: implications for relationships and palaeobiology. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 146 (3): 345–368. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2006.00205.x. Modesto SP 2010. The postcranial skeleton of the aquatic parareptile Mesosaurus tenuidensfrom the Gondwanan Permian. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30 (5): 1378–1395. doi:10.1080/02724634.2010.501443.
Motani R, You H and McGowan C 1997. Eel-like swimming in the earliest ichthyosaurs. Nature, 382:347–348.
Motani R, Minoura N and Ando T 1998. Ichthyosaur relationships illuminated by new primitive skeletons from Japan. Nature, 393:255–257.
Shikama T, Kamei T and Murata M 1978. Early Triassic ichthyosaurs, Utatsusaurus hataiigen. et sp. nov., from the Kitakami Massif, Northwest Japan. Science Report of the Tohoku University Sendai, Japan, second series (Geology), 48: 77–97.
Vieira PC, Mezzalira S, Ferreira FJF 1991. Mesossaurídeo (Stereosternum Tumidum) e crustáceo (Liocaris Huenei) no Membro Assistência da Formação Irati (P) nos municípios
de Jataí e Montevidiu, estado de Goiás. Revista Brasileira de Geociências, 21:224-235.
Wiman C 1929. Eine neue Reptilien-Ordnung aus der Trias Spitzbergens. Bulletin of the Geological Institutions of the University of Upsala 22: 183–196.
Wu X-C, Cheng Y-N, Li C, Zhao L-J and Sato T 2011. New Information on Wumengosaurus delicatomandibularis Jiang et al., 2008, (Diapsida: Sauropterygia), with a Revision of the Osteology and Phylogeny of the Taxon. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31(1):70–83.
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5 thoughts on “The Origin and Evolution of Ichthyosaurs

  1. Pingback: ICHTYOSAURIERS « Tsjok's blog

  2. That’s exactly what I was thinking! Just today, I came to the startling realization that it was the Younginiforms that ultimately gave rise the the Ichthyosaurs. Great minds really do think alike!

  3. Also, I have a theory: I was wondering if the Placodonts were also descended from the Younginiforms due to their very similar anatomy.
    Not only them, but diapsids like Tanystropheus, and even the Nothosaurs. Is there some genuine merit to my ponderous claim(s)?

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