Dorsal views of basal turtle skulls support the cladogram

Earlier
here, here and here we looked at turtle origins — a controversial topic in mainstream paleontology resolved quickly and surely in the large reptile tree, which gives 639 taxa the opportunity to be ancestral to turtles.

Long story short
Toothy Elginia currently nests outside the turtles (only because we don’t have any post-crania) and toothless Meiolania nests as the basalmost turtle (Fig. 1) because it retains supratemporal horns and the elbows still extend laterally, not anteriorly. These taxa are derived from pareiasaurs, which are themselves sisters to diadectids, bolosaurs and proclophonids.

Figure 1. How the large reptile tree lumps and splits the several Diadectes specimens now included here. Note that bolosaurids, including Phonodus, now nest within other Diadectes specimens.

Figure 1. How the large reptile tree lumps and splits the several Diadectes specimens now included here. Note that bolosaurids, including Phonodus, now nest within other Diadectes specimens.

When the skulls of pertinent taxa
are seen in dorsal view (Fig. 2) it is easier to see the reduction of the horns in  pre- and basal turtle skulls. One also gets the impression that when Proganochelys and Odontochelys arrived on the scene in the Late Triassic, they both represent a much earlier radiation of turtles, both horned and not horned. So there are many more basal turtles out there waiting for us to discover them.

Figure 2. Turtles and their ancestors among the pareiasaurs. Note the soft shell turtle clade rotates the orbits until they are visible dorsally. Click to enlarge. Odontochelys is not so primitive as once considered. AND it appears to have redeveloped teeth. Note the reduction of supratemporal horns in basal turtles.

Figure 2. Turtles and their ancestors among the pareiasaurs. Note the soft shell turtle clade rotates the orbits until they are visible dorsally. Click to enlarge. Odontochelys is not so primitive as once considered. AND it appears to have redeveloped teeth. Note the reduction of supratemporal horns in basal turtles.

The Odontochelys tooth problem
Odontochelys is a Late Triassic toothed turtle that originally was considered (Li et al. 2008) a very basal turtle. Not so according to phylogenetic analysis which nests it with soft shell turtles like Trionyx. The odd thing is this soft shell turtle appears to have regrown teeth. More basal and sister taxa do not have teeth (Fig. 3). Odontochelys is also unusual in having nares in the anterior lateral orientation, not completely anterior, as in Trionyx, as in virtually all other turtles, and not dorsal, as in Ocepecephalon, which is also very off for a turtle.

Figure 3. Odontochelys and Trionyx. Note the teeth in ventral view of the Odontochelys skull.

Figure 3. Odontochelys and Trionyx. Note the teeth in ventral view of the Odontochelys skull. Click to enlarge.

The supratemporal problem
This evolutionary sequence demonstrates that the large supratemporal bones of turtles (the supratemporal horns of pre-turtles and Meiolania) have been traditionally mislabeled. This may be part of the problem that workers have had in nesting turtles in prior studies.

The molecule problem
Some researchers have found that turtle DNA is most closely matched to that of living archosaurs: crocs and birds. Everyone knows morphology does not support that nesting. Someone somewhere will figure this out someday.

References
Li C, Wu X-C, Rieppel O, Wang L-T and Zhao L-J 2008. An ancestral turtle from the Late Triassic of southwestern China. Nature 456: 497-501.

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