Is Nyasasaurus the oldest dinosaur?

Nesbitt et al. (2014) report, “Here, we describe Nyasasaurus parringtoni gen. et sp. nov., which is identified as either the earliest known member of, or the sister–taxon to, Dinosauria. Nyasasaurus possesses a unique combination of dinosaur character states and an elevated growth rate similar to that of definitive early dinosaurs.”

Nesbitt et al. (2012) did not provide a reconstruction. The specimen is only known from a few Middle Triassic (Anisian) vertebrae and a proximal humerus. Here (Fig. 1) is a reconstruction that seems to fit pretty well based on the holotype and referred specimens of Nyasasaurus placed onto the bauplan of a large and slightly larger (for the cervicals) specimen of Turfanosuchus, a basal archosaur at the base of the Poposauridae (now nesting basal to archosaurs in the large reptile tree). This was, what you might call, an early ‘false start’ mimicking the actual rise of the Dinosauria.

Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Nyasasaurus bones placed on an enlargement of Turfanosuchus, a middle Triassic basal archosaur, not a dinosaur. Dinos and crocs all started out as tiny bipeds.

Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Nyasasaurus bones placed on an enlargement of Turfanosuchus, a big. middle Triassic basal archosaur, not a dinosaur. Dinos and crocs all started out as tiny bipeds, also derived from Turfanosuchus, but smaller.

Nesbitt et al. ran their analysis and found Nyasasaurus to nest between 1) Lewisuchus and dinosaurs; 2) basal to Ornithischia; or 3) as the sister to Dilophosaurus, a Jurassic dinosaur. I didn’t run an analysis as my characters would not resolve relationships based on so few parts.

The large reptile tree finds two small specimens, Trialestes and an unnamed specimen incorrectly referred by Lecuona and Desojo (2011) to Gracilisuchus (PVL 1259) at the base of the Dinosauria. The latter is as old as Nyasasaurus, fulfilling chronological predictions.

Nesbitt et al. note a ventrally elongate deltopectoral crest on the humerus, but that assumes a short humerus. The crest is not so elongate if the humerus is a little longer.

Nesbitt et al. note three sacral vertebrae, but basal dinos don’t have three sacrals, only two. Turfanosuchus also has only two, but look at the size difference! Poposaurus, a sister taxon, has five sacrals. So Nyasasaurus is something else. Nesbitt et al. note hyposphene–hypantrum intervertebral articulations in the pre sacral vertebrae. Sorry, not much about that in Turfanosuchus data. In Turfanosuchus, as in Nyasaurus, the cervical vertebrae are laterally concave.

References
Lecuona A and Desojo, JB 2011. Hind limb osteology of Gracilisuchus stipanicicorum (Archosauria: Pseudosuchia). Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 102 (2): 105–128.
Nesbitt SJ, Barrett PM, Werning S, Sidor CA and Charig AJ (posthumously) 2012. The oldest dinosaur? A Middle Triassic dinosauriform from Tanzania. Biology Letters 9: 20120949.

 

 

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