The many faces of Tanystropheus

Tanystropheus is well known
as the sometimes giant reptile with the hyper-elongate neck (Figs. 1, 2). Several specimens are known, all by letters in the alphabet based on Wild (1973). Few specimens have skulls.

The smaller Tanystropheus specimens (Fig. 1) have multicusp posterior teeth, and some workers consider these juveniles that change their diet and teeth as they grow. Others, including yours truly, think these are two different species, if not different genera. Remember, guyz and galz, you don’t get giant species without first going through the medium and large size ranges. We learned this earlier with Pteranodon.

Wild’s (1973) reconstruction of the skull was taken as gospel for a good long time. Then Nosotti (2007) came along and rebuilt the small skull in convincing fashion. Here we’ll take a look at a skull from a small individual (Fig. 1, Exemplar a) and compare it to two skulls from the larger forms (Fig. 2, Exemplars i and q). Then you can decide if the differences are ontogenetic or phylogenetic.

Tanystropheus exemplar a.

Figure 1. Tanystropheus exemplar a.

Exemplar a has a low rostrum and large orbit. The frontals extend over the orbits like brow ridges. The nasals are not visible on any articulated skulls, and displaced samples can be placed on the skull two different ways. The ascending process of the premaxilla is also a big question mark. It could be present or absent. The pineal opening is not large in any sister taxa, so it redevelops here. The posterior skull leans down, which, by analogy with basal synapsids indicates a bit of posterior pull on the mandible, as if Exemplar a was tugging at its meals.

Figure 2. Tanystropheus with skull reconstructions based on two specimens, exemplar i and exemplar m.

Figure 2. Tanystropheus with skull reconstructions based on two specimens, exemplar i and exemplar q.

Among the giant specimens…

Exemplar i is the skull that Wild (1973) used for his ‘adult’ specimen. Like  Exemplar a, the frontals are wide, the nasals are unknown and the ascending process of the premaxilla is apparently gone. This creates quite a large confluent set of nares dorsally oriented. The posterior skull does not descend posteriorly. Only a few teeth are preserved and in dorsal view the rostrum is wide and rather flat, like a hat brim. One gets the impression that a great circle of procumbent teeth emanated from these jaws because the premaxilla appear to be quite flat in situ with no indication of any depth.

Exemplar q is lower, longer and had a reduced pterygoid and vomers. Here the nares are also very large, but divided by a slender and fragile ascending process of the premaxilla (pretty much busted up in situ). Rather than wide and flat, this rostrum is more traditionally box-like with ventrally oriented teeth. The pterygoid is greatly reduced and so are the vomers. The nasals are preserved here only as posterior rims to the large nares. The brow ridges are gone here, so Exemplar q could look up without moving its head.

The appearance of those giant nares on these tiny skulls links to that hyper-elongate neck and within, a hyper-elongate trachea that needs to be flushed of CO2 and filled with O2 every so often.

So the skulls of the big taxa are different.
It might be worthwhile to see how the post-crania also differs. There’s a PhD project waiting for someone out there, probably in Europe, where the fossils are. Or wait a few weekends and I’ll probably get around to it.

Bassani F 1886. Sui Fossili e sull’ età degli schisti bituminosi triasici di Besano in Lombardia. Atti della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali 19:15–72.
Li C 2007. A juvenile Tanystropheus sp.(Protoro sauria: Tanystropheidae) from the Middle Triassic of Guizhou, China. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 45(1): 37-42.
Meyer H von 1847–55. Die saurier des Muschelkalkes mit rücksicht auf die saurier aus Buntem Sanstein und Keuper; pp. 1-167 in Zur fauna der Vorwelt, zweite Abteilung. Frankfurt.
Nosotti S 2007. Tanystropheus longobardicus (Reptilia, Protorosauria: Reinterpretations of the anatomy based on new specimens from the Middle Triassic of Besano (Lombardy, Northern Italy). Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano, Vol. XXXV – Fascicolo III, pp. 1-88
Peyer B 1931. Tanystropheus longobardicus Bass sp. Die Triasfauna der Tessiner Kalkalpen. Abhandlungen Schweizerische Paläontologie Gesellschaft 50:5-110.
Wild R 1973. Die Triasfauna der Tessiner Kalkalpen XXIII. Tanystropheus longobardicus (Bassani) (Neue Ergebnisse). – Schweizerische Paläontologische Abhandlungen 95: 1-16.



One thought on “The many faces of Tanystropheus

  1. Remember back in the 90s when Tanystropheus used to be shown with a wiggly snake-like neck? I used to have a Jurassic Park toy like that. Somehow the modern scientifically-accurate version of this guy just doesn’t have the same amount of charm or pleasing aesthetics as the older incorrect version. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s just nostalgia.

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