Updated April 08, 2014
Stappenbeck (1905) illustrated several parts of a disarticulated Early Permian fossil, Stephanospondylus, that he considered a diadectid. So did Kissel (2010) in his much more recent PhD dissertation. Stappenbeck (1905) also created an odd reconstruction which Romer (1925) thoroughly dismissed because Stappenbeck included bones from a nearby.
I reassembled the individual parts illustrated in Stappenbeck (1905) and discovered that the clavicle is really a costal plate on a dorsal rib (Fig. 1), as in Odontochelys. That’s exciting news! That solidifies Stephanospondylus to turtles. We took a recent look at Odontochelys here.
The Stephanospondylus parts are reassembled here (Fig. 1). Not sure how many vertebrae separated the scapula and pelvis. Not sure how long the neck or tail were.
Cementing an earlier nesting
Earlier we found that Stephanospondylus was a sister to the ancestor of turtles based on the results of the large reptile tree. These new bone identifications further cement that relationship and, for the first time, provide it with a proto-carapace and strongly hint at the presence of a plastron.
The origin of turtles is one of the biggest enigmas in paleontology. Hopefully these new insights will help resolve the problem. 65 million years separate Stephanospondylus from Odontochelys, and 80 million years to Proganochelys (Fig.1), so there’s plenty of time to evolve more turtle-like traits and a variety of turtles world-wide, even at a turtle-like pace.
I had one of those “discovery” moments
At first I accepted Stappenbeck’s identification of the spade-shape bone (Fig. 2) as a clavicle. But it just didn’t fit. And it didn’t resemble any clavicles on sister taxa. I realized that the bone more closely resembled the expanded ribs of Odontochelys, which happened to be on the same figure (Fig. 1). It also resembles the anteriormost dorsal ribs of Diadectes, but those do not have the texture seen above.
it pays to create reconstructions. Odd-balls become known. Comparisons provide more parsimonious answers.
The same sort of magic moments
occurred earlier with the prepubis and coracoid of Cosesaurus and with the entire back end of Longisquama. And there are several other examples, from the vampire pterosaur to the flightless pterosaur. Sometimes it just takes insight. And insight comes randomly and with increasing momentum with more experience, which I am slowly gaining with turtles.
Back in 1905,
Stappenbeck did not have the example of Odontochelys, nor any of that century’s discoveries to compare his fossil to. So making those errors does not make him a bad scientist. This is just an example of the progress we’re all here to advance, especially on rarely studied fossils.
The history of the fossil(s) and Romer’s 1925 take
According to Wikipedia, “Stephanospondylus is known only from several vertebrae and fragments of the upper and lower jaws. It was named in 1882 on the basis of two slabs, the fossils in which were thought to represent two individuals. With the erection of a new genus in 1905, the fossils were considered to be part of a single individual. In 1925, Alfred Romer determined that only parts of the jaws and some vertebrae belonged to Stephanospondylus; the other material belonged to the temnospondyl amphibian Onchiodon.” (Fig. 3).
Romer made an important contribution in 1925. He found four scapulae and two different kinds of vertebrae in the scattered slab materials. Romer did not attempt a reconstruction. That might have helped as he had all the data necessary to reconstruct a basal turtle.
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