Longisquama and the Origin of Pterosaurs

Prequel: Longisquama Gets No Respect
(or the Lengths Scientists Will Go to Protect Pet Theories)

In their two-part paper on pterosaur origins Hone and Benton (2007, 2008) announced they would test whether pterosaurs nested more parsimoniously within the Archosauria (Bennett 1996) or the Prolacertiformes (Peters 2000). They used the technique of the supertree, gathering several trees together to come up with a larger, ostensibly more complete, tree. That permitted them to use the data of others without having to visit fossils. We’ll get back to their results (below), but first a short background study.

Bennett (1996) used suprageneric taxa, for the most part, and nested pterosaurs with Scleromochlus at the base of the Dinosauria + Lagosuchus (now Marasuchus). The Ornithosuchidae were basal to this clade. The Prolacertiformes were nested far toward the base of the tree. Earlier we discussed problems with these putative sisters here. Bennett (1996) did not consider CosesaurusSharovipteryx and Longisquama.


Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Fenestrasaurs including Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and pterosaurs

Peters (2000) tested the matrices of Bennett (1996) and two others (Jalil 1991 and Evans 1986) simply by adding Langobardisaurus and the fenestrasaurs, including CosesaurusSharovipteryx and Longisquama. Pterosaurs nested with these taxa, rather than any archosaur or archosauromorph, when given the opportunity. Peters (2000) erected the clade, the Fenestrasauria, because they shared the trait of an antorbital fenestra without a fossa, convergent with that of archosaurs.

The largest study to date on reptile interrelationships nested Longisquama and pterosaurs with lizards like Lacertulus, Meyasaurus and Huehuecuetzpalli, far from Prolacerta, archosauromorphs, Scleromochlus and archosaurs.

Getting Back to Where We Began
Hone and Benton (2007) discredited the data of Peters (2000) and elected not to include any of it in their supertree. That left only one study that included pterosaurs, Bennett (1996), in their supertree analysis. Having eliminated the opposing candidate data and the opposing candidate taxa, the results were predetermined. The results of Hone and Benton (2008) reflected the results of Bennett (1996). Sadly, the results also nested members of the Choristodera far from the Choristodera and members of the Lepidosauromorpha far from the Lepidosauromorpha, so the study had its problems. Moreover, Hone and Benton (2008) falsely gave credit for the prolacertiform hypothesis to Bennett (1996), after properly giving it to Peters (2000) in their earlier (2007) paper. And now you know  the lengths scientists will go to protect their pet theories.

The Back Half of Longisquama
Ever since Sharov (1971) reported that only the front half of Longisquama was visible, scientists stopped looking for it. Ironically, one of the plumes illustrated by Sharov(1971), the one not radiating like the others, was a tibia and femur. The subdivided “feather shafts” reported by Jones et al. (2000) were actually displaced toes subdivided by phalanges. Here, using the technique of DGS (digital graphic segregation) the back half of Longisquama is, at last, revealed.

The complete fossil of Longisquama.

Figure 2. Click to enlarge. The complete fossil of Longisquama.

The back half of Longisquama was overlooked for so long because the elements lined up with and were camouflaged by the plumes. Apparently Longisquama’s stomach exploded, or was torn up. The front third of Longisquama is undisturbed, the tail is undisturbed, but the hips are turned backwards and the legs and feet are rotated up to the dorsal vertebrae.

Longisquama in lateral view

Figure 3. Longisquama in lateral view, dorsal view and closeup of the skull. Like Microraptor, Longisquama glided/flew with similarly-sized wings both fore and aft.

Distinct from Cosesaurus
The skull of Longsiquama had a more constricted snout, which enhanced binocular vision. The orbits were larger. The teeth had larger cusps. The naris was probably larger. With increased bipedalism and active flapping, Longiquama probably experimented with aerobic metabolism. The cervicals were shorter and the dorsal series was longer, especially so near the hips and between the ilia. The sacrum curved dorsally 90 degrees, which elevated the attenuated tail. These vertebral modifications made Longsiquama similar to a lemur, which also leaps from tree to tree. Such a long torso provided more room for plumes, gave the back great flexibility, and provided more room for egg production. The pectoral girdle was little changed from Cosesaurus. The clavicles curved around the sternal complex and the sternal keel was deeper. Fused together the interclavicle, clavicles and sternum form a sternal complex, as in pterosaurs. During taphonomy the sternal complex ofLongisquama drifted to beneath the cervicals, exactly where the clavicles are found in non-fenestrasaur tetrapods, including birds. This has led to confusion because the clavicles overlapped giving the appearance of a bird-like furcula. As in Cosesaurus, the pterosaur-like pectoral girdle and socketed coracoids enabled Longisquama to flap and generate thrust during leaps. The pelvis was greatly elongated anteriorly and posteriorly with a posterior ilium rising along with the dorsally curved sacrum of seven vertebrae. The pubis and ischium were much deeper, which provided a much larger pelvic aperture to pass a much larger egg. The distal femur was concave and the proximal tibia convex, as in Sharovipteryx. Both the femur and tibia/fibula were more robust. The foot was relatively large with digits of increasing length laterally. Pedal digit V had a curved proximal phalanx.

Longisquama is famous for, and was named for, its dorsal plumes. Another set of plumes arose from its skull and neck. Former caudal hairs (in Cosesaurus) formed a tail vane in Longisquama. As in Sharovipteryx and pterosaurs, Longsiquama had a uropatagium trailing each of its hind limbs. Like Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx and pterosaurs membranes trailed the forelimbs, too. This documents the origin of the pterosaur wing and proves that it developed distally on a flapping wing (Peters 2002) rather than proximally as a gliding membrane (contra Elgin, Hone and Frey in press) and certainly without wing pronation, loss of digit V, loss of ungual 4 and migration of metacarpals I-III to the anterior face of metacarpal IV (contra Bennett 2008).

Longisquama was overloaded with secondary sexual characteristics. From plumes to flapping arms, Longisquama was all about creating an exciting presentation unrivaled until the present-day bird-of-paradise. Longisquama had everything Cosesaurus had, only wildly exaggerated. With increased bipedalism and active flapping, Longiquama probably experienced the genesis of aerobic metabolism.

Figure 4. Click to enlarge. The origin of the pterosaur wing and the migration of the pteroid and preaxial carpal. A. Sphenodon. B. Huehuecuetzpalli. C. Cosesaurus. D. Sharovipteryx. E. Longisquama. F-H. The Milan specimen MPUM 6009, a basal pterosaur.

The Origin of the Pterosaur Wing
The elongated and robust finger four of Longisquama was also overlooked by all prior workers. Reconstructed here the hand of Longsiquama remains the best transitional example between Cosesaurus and pterosaurs. It is likely that digit 4 did not flex with the other three fingers in Longisquama because the PILs (parallel interphalangeal lines) were not continuous through digit 4, which also supported a pterosaur-like wing membrane, preserved along with the other soft tissue, the plumes.

As always, I encourage readers to see specimens, make observations and come to your own conclusions. Test. Test. And test again.

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

Bennett SC 2008. Morphological evolution of the forelimb of pterosaurs: myology and function. Pp. 127–141 in E. Buffetaut & D.W.E. Hone (eds.), Flugsaurier: pterosaur papers in honour of Peter Wellnhofer. Zitteliana, B28.
Elgin RA, Hone DWE and Frey E 2011. The extent of the pterosaur flight membrane. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica doi: 10.4202/app.2009.0145 online pdf
Jones TD et al 2000. Nonavian Feathers in a Late Triassic Archosaur. Science 288 (5474): 2202–2205. doi:10.1126/science.288.5474.2202. PMID 10864867.
Martin LD 2004. A basal archosaurian origin for birds. Acta Zoologica Sinica 50(6): 978-990.
Peters D 2000. A Redescription of Four Prolacertiform Genera and Implications for Pterosaur Phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106 (3): 293–336.
Peters D 2002. A New Model for the Evolution of the Pterosaur Wing – with a twist. Historical Biology 15: 277-301.
Senter P 2003. Taxon Sampling Artifacts and the Phylogenetic Position of Aves. PhD dissertation. Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, 1-279.
Senter P 2004. Phylogeny of Drepanosauridae (Reptilia: Diapsida) Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 2(3): 257-268.
Sharov AG 1970. A peculiar reptile from the lower Triassic of Fergana. Paleontologiceskij Zurnal (1): 127–130.



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