Surviving the Permian-Triassic boundary

For those of you
who typically ignore the letters to the editor, this is one exchange that you might find interesting.

Earlier Bill Erickson asked me 
“So, why, in your opinion, did diapsid reptiles suddenly — and I do mean suddenly — become so dominant beginning in or about Carnian time, and remain dominant thereafter throughout the Mesozoic, after millions of years of synapsid dominance beforehand in the mid-to-late Paleozoic and early Triassic?”

I answered
-Why- questions are very tough in Science, Bill. I don’t know the answer to your question. I don’t have an opinion either.

B. Erickson replied
“David – I’d agree for the most part, but I do think Peter Ward made a good case [in his book Gorgon.] that synapsids had a less efficient respiratory system than many archosaurs, and that lower atmospheric oxygen was a major driver in the end-Permian extinction. Of course, some synapsids, especially cynodonts, were diverse in early Triassic, and that’s another story.”

To which I replied
Bill, I have heard of Ward’s hypothesis and it makes a certain sense. Let me toss this off-the-cuff idea at you.

Synapsids, to my knowledge, survived the Permian extinction event by burrowing, or perhaps there was a part of the world they found refuge in. If the former, whether in dirt or leaf litter, both niches seem to support small to tiny tetrapods. See Pachygenelus, Megazostrodon and Hadrocodium for examples. [Well, those are all bad examples as they are all Early Jurassic, but consider the small earliest Triassic cyndont, Thrinaxodon (Fig. 1).]

Figure 1. Thrinaxodon, a burrowing synapsid from the Early Triassic was similar in size and proportion to the Late Permian ancestor of all archosauriformes, Youngoides (Fig. 2). These similar basal taxa were the genesis for all later mammals, dinosaurs and birds. 

Figure 1. Thrinaxodon, a burrowing synapsid from the Early Triassic was similar in size and proportion to the Late Permian ancestor of all archosauriformes, Youngoides (Fig. 2). These similar basal taxa were the genesis for all later mammals, dinosaurs and birds.

On the diapsid/archosauriform side, the likely aquatic proterosuchids cross the Permo-Triassic boundary, then give rise to all the familiar archosauriformes. In the water niche larger tetrapods, like crocs, are supported. As Malcolm Gladwell documented so well [in his book Outliers], an initial minor advantage can accelerate or become emphasized over time.

So, again guessing here, the largely nocturnal denizens of the burrows and leaf litter apparently played to their environment and stayed small yielding the otherwise unoccupied largely diurnal aquatic-grading-to-terrestrial taxa the larger size as they played to their niche. Maybe the diapsids just got to the outdoors/daylight niche first.

Figure 2. Updated image of various proterosuchids and their kin. When you see them all together it is easier to appreciated the similarities and slight differences that are gradual accumulations of derived taxa. Youngoides and the earliest proterosuchids were Late Permian. Others were Early Triassic and later.

Figure 2. Updated image of various proterosuchids and their kin. When you see them all together it is easier to appreciated the similarities and slight differences that are gradual accumulations of derived taxa. Youngoides and the earliest proterosuchids were Late Permian. Others were Early Triassic and later.

Along the same lines, the lepidosaur diapsids stayed relatively small and unobtrusive except for the Late Triassic sea-going tanystropheids and Late Cretaceous sea-going mosasaurs, perhaps following the same niche rules and regs as above. Pterosaur lepidosaurs also experienced much greater size in the Late Cretaceous.

Just a thought/opinion supported by what I can recall at the moment. Let me know your thoughts if you’d like to continue this thought journey. [END]

And then beyond that exchange…
I note that EarlyTriassic synapsid taxon list also includes the large dicynodont, Kanneymeira and a number of small therocephalians. Burrowing taxa are pre adapted to a nocturnal existence. The big dicynodont must have survived in some sort to refuge niche.

The standard story
includes the notion that dinosaurs and other archosauriform predators were snapping up every little synapsid they saw, so the survivors became invisible by becoming nocturnal and or really tiny… and that probably continued throughout the Mesozoic, with both clades improving generation after generation.

erythrosuchid

Figure 3. Basal archosauriforms from the Early Triassic,  including Euparkeria, Proterosuchus and Garjainia.

The twist brought to you by
the large reptile tree is the outgroup for the Archosauriforms, Youngoides, is a small, Thrinaxodon-sized terrestrial younginiform diapsid (Fig. 1). Perhaps an early affinity for rivers and lakes was the key to survival among proterosuchid archosauriforms when the P-Tr problems escalated. But also note that the small ancestors to dinosaurs, the euparkeriids, (Fig. 3) ALSO survived the P-Tr boundary as small terrestrial forms alongside the much larger terrestrial erythrosuchids, otherwise known as giant younginids.

Maybe we’ll never know…
but it’s interesting to put at least some of the puzzle pieces together.

 

 

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