While phylogenetic analysis nests the new ichthyosaur-mimic, Cartorhynchus, with pachypleurosaurs, sometimes it helps to put the contenders side-by-side (Fig. 1). I’ve also updated the odd pectoral girdle and traced the visible palatal elements since Cartorhynchus was first presented here (which has been updated).
Cartorhynchus certainly has a distinct morphology, even for a pachypleurosaur. But then pachypleurosaurs are basal to a wide range of marine reptiles including placodonts, plesiosaurs, thalattosaurs (including Helveticosaurus and Vancleavea), ichthyosaurs and mesosaurs.
The large head, short neck and flippers instead of limbs set Cartorhynchus apart from other basal sauropterygians. Placodonts also have a short neck and short rostrum, so it happens.
Like all pachypleurosaurs,
Cartorhynchus has both an anterior and posterior coracoid (Fig. 2) forming a chest shield like a plesiosaur. That makes it a flipper swimmer, not a tail swimmer, like ichthyosaurs, which evolved from long, mesosaur-like sauropterygians, like Wumengosaurus. No ichthyosaur has a flat robust gastralia basket, wide rib cage, and short rostrum like Cartorhynchus and the pachypleurosaurs have. Note the long premaxillary ascending process makes contact withe the frontals, as in Pachypleurosaurus. The palate is more pachypleurosaur-like than ichthyosaur-like.
In many pachypleurosaurs and their descendants, the anterior coracoid and scapula are fused together. Many illustrations of pachypleurosaurs don’t note this, but call the unit a scapula. You can discover this for yourself by looking at a wide variety of clade members. In Cartorhynchus, the scapula is not fused to the coracoid (Figs. 2, 3).
Cartorhynchus and basal ichthyosaurs share many traits.
But Cartorhynchus and basal sauropterygians share a few more. That tips the scales in favor on sauropterygians, based on the hypothesis of maximum parsimony. Ichthyosaurs can also trace their ancestry through basal pachypleurosaurs. So they’re not that far removed.
The new palatal data confirms the pachypleurosaur affinities of Cartorhynchus. Note the presence of internal nares essentially below the external nares. In Wumengosaurus and ichthyosaurs the internal nares are set further back in the skull.
The new interpretation of the ultra-wide interclavicle makes the overall shape more fusiform, despite the presence of a small neck, and it locates the scapula as far laterally as the widest ribs, which makes more sense in the reconstruction based on the squared off proximal humerus giving it room to move dorso-ventrally, more like an underwater wing.
Motani R et al. 2014. A basal ichthyosauriform with a short snout from the Lower Triassic of China. Nature doi:10.1038/nature13866