Heleosuchus – the enigma has nested in the Rhynchocephalia

Figure 1. Heleosuchus, a former enigma, nests in the middle of the Rhynchocelphalia, between Planocephalosaurus and Sphenodon.

Figure 1. Heleosuchus, a former enigma, nests in the middle of the Rhynchocelphalia, between Planocephalosaurus and Sphenodon. Here is Heleosuchus in situ and Planocephalosaurus restored to scale. Click to enlarge.

Heleosuchus (Fig. 1) has been an enigma since first described by Owen 1876. Several heavy-hitters in paleontology (Broom 1913, Evans 1984, Carroll 1987) have taken a whack at it without resolving its relations.

According to Wikipedia, “It was originally described as a species of Saurosternon, but was later recognized as a separate taxon by R. Broom. Heleosuchus is suggested as being either an early diapsid reptile, not closely related to other lineages, or as being an aberrant and primitive lepidosauromorph. Heleosuchus shares the hooked fifth metatarsal found in some other diapsids, such as primitive turtles (Odontochelys), lepidosauromorphs, and archosauromorphs, but it also resembles ‘younginiform’-grade diapsids in its gross morphology.  Heleosuchus may also share a thyroid fenestra with these higher diapsid reptiles as well, but the identity of this feature is disputed.”

Based on tracings by Carroll (1987) the large reptile tree (not updated yet) Heleosuchus nested between Planocephalosaurus (Fig. 1) and the clade of Sphenodon and Kallimodon in the middle of the Rhynchocephalia. What was identified as a scapula must be a portion of the interclavicle instead.

However, even Carroll was not sure of the identification of several elements. Unfortunately it appears as though the last time someone published on Heleosuchus was prior to the advent of computer-assisted phylogenetic analysis. Carroll notes, “if a thyroid fenestra is present and the fifth metatarsal is hooked, Heleosuchus would definitely represent a lineage distinct from the younginoids. These features are present in Late Triassic sphenodontids and Jurassic lizards, but they are also present in other groups. In conclusion, the characters that are preserved point to a position near the base of the lepidosauromorph assemblage, possibly close to the younginoids but perhaps representing a distinct lineage.”

What appears to be bothering Carroll is the early appearance of Heleosuchus in the Late Permian of South Africa relative to the lepidosaurs known to him at the time. That early appearance doesn’t bother the large reptile tree, which nests several other Permian contemporaries just as high if not higher in the reptile family tree.

Broom R 1913. A revision of the reptiles of the Karroo. Annals of the South African Museum 7: 361–366.
Carroll RL 1987. Heleosuchus: an enigmatic diapsid reptile from the Late Permian or Early Triassic of southern Africa”. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences24: 664–667.
Evans SE 1984. The anatomy of the Permian reptile Heleosuchus griesbachi. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Monatshefte, 12: 717-727.
Owen R 1876. Descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the fossil Reptilia of South Africa in the collection of the British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), London, UK.



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