Go back far enough in dinosaur ancestry and you come to: Heleosaurus

With our never-ending fascination with dinosaurs
it’s interesting to list some of the taxa in their deep, deep!, deep!! ancestry. One such ancestor is Heleosaurus (Fig. 1; Broom 1907; Middle Permian ~270 mya, ~30 cm snout to vent length), the first known basal prodiapsid, the clade the includes diapsids (sans lepidosaurs, which are unrelated but share the same skull topology by convergence).

Figure 1. Heleosaurus is closer to the main lineage of dinosaurs. It retained canine fangs.

Figure 1. Heleosaurus is close to the main lineage of dinosaurs. It retained canine fangs. Note the squamosal distinct from the quadratojugal, as in Nikkasaurus. Also note the continuing lacrimal contact with the naris, as in Protorothyris.

But first
I want to discuss a derived Heleosaurus cousin, Nikkasaurus (Ivahnenko 2000; Fig. 2), also one of the most basal prodiapsids.

It is only by coincidence
that Ivahnenko labeled Nikkasaurus one of his ‘Dinomorpha,’ a clade name ignored by other authors. Wikipedia considers Nikkasaurus one of the Therapsida and possibly a relic of a more ancient stage of therapsid development. Like Heleosaurus, Nikkasaurus had a single synapsid-like lateral temporal fenestra. Only their nesting outside of that clade and basal to the clade Diapsida in the LRT tell us what they really are. Most of the time, as you know, we can tell what a taxon is simply by looking at it. In this case, as in only a few others, we cannot do so readily.

Figure 1. Nikkasaurus, one of the most primitive prodiapsids, direct but ancient ancestors of dinosaurs.

Figure 2. Nikkasaurus, one of the most primitive prodiapsids, direct but ancient ancestors of dinosaurs.

Nikkasaurus tatarinovi (Ivahnenko 2000) Middle Permian was a tiny basal prodiapsid with a large orbit. It retained a large quadratojugal. The fossil is missing the squamosal. Others mistakenly considered the quadratojugal the squamosal, as in therapsids. That’s an easy mistake to make. Compare this bone to the QJ in Heleosaurus (Fig. 1), another prodiapsid. Nikkasaurus has small sharp teeth and no canine fang. Nikkasaurus is a sister to Mycterosaurus. They both share a large orbit and fairly long snout. What appears to be a retroarticular process may be something else awaiting inspection in the actual fossil. Based on all other data points, I don’t trust that post-dentary data. It doesn’t match the in situ figure.

Distinct from other prodiapsids,
the Nikkasaurus, Mycerosaurus and Mesenosaurus maxilla extended dorsally, overlapping the lacrimal and contacting the nasal, as it does in Dimetrodon and basal therapsids like Hipposaurus and Stenocybus. This trait tends to be homoplastic / convergent in all derived taxa, but the timing differs in separate clades.

Figure 1. Nikkasaurus and what little is known of its postcrania. Above, in situ. Below, tentative reconstruction. If anyone has a picture of the fossil itself, please send it.

Figure 2. Nikkasaurus and what little is known of its postcrania. Above, in situ. Below, tentative reconstruction. If anyone has a picture of the fossil itself, please send it. Note the posterior mandible mismatch in the purported retroarticular process. I suspect the process is not there.

And finally we come back to Heleosaurus.
Slightly closer to the lineage of dinosaurs is the slightly more basal prodiapsid, Heleosaurus (Fig. 2), which retained canine fangs, had a more typical posterior mandible and retained a lacrimal / naris contact. This naris trait was retained by Petrolacosaurus, Eudibamus, Spinoaequalis and other basal diapsids (archosauromorpha with both upper and lateral temporal fenestra ). The maxilla did not rise again to cut off lacrimal contact with the naris in the ancestry of dinosaurs until the small Youngina specimens huddled together, SAM K 7710 and every more derived taxon thereafter, up to and including dinos.

References
Broom R 1907. On some new fossil reptiles from the Karroo beds of Victoria West, South Africa. Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society 18:31–42.
Ivahnenko MF 2000. 
Cranial morphology and evolution of Permian Dinomorpha (Eotherapsida) of eastern Europe. Paleontological Journal 42(9):859-995. DOI: 10.1134/S0031030108090013

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