Long proximal carpals,
like the radiale and ulnare in Terrestrisuchus (Figs. 1, 2; Crush 1984), distinguish most crocodylomorphs from all basal dinosaurs (Fig. 2).
The question is:
why did long carpals develop? A recent comment from a reader suggested they enabled quadrupedal locomotion. But looking at the proportions of Terrestrisuchus does not inspire great confidence in that hypothesis. Terrestrisuchus has elongate carpals AND it seems to be comfortably bipedal with hands that only descend to the knees. And the pectoral girdle is relatively gracile.
Looking back toward more primitive taxa
provides only one clue as to when the proximal carpals first started elongating: with Terrestrisuchus. The following basal and often bipedal croc taxa unfortunately do not preserve carpals.
Phylogenetic bracketing suggests that all
were bipedal or facultatively bipedal. Post-crania is missing or partly missing in several of these specimens.
The distal carpals,
wherever preserved (Figs. 2, 3), appear to be small, scarce and flat, the opposite of a supple flexible wrist. So the proximal carpals of crocs comprise the great majority of the wrist, distinct from dinosaurs (Fig. 2).
So… what do other bipedal taxa do with their hands?
Cosesaurus, a bipedal ancestor to pterosaurs, probably flapped, based on the shape of its stem-like coracoid and other traits. Herrerasaurus, a bipedal ancestor to dinosaurs had elongate raptorial unguals (claws) lacking in any basal crocodylomorph (Fig. 2). Such claws were probably used in grasping prey in dinos… not so much in crocs.
The elongate proximal carpals in crocodylomorphs
appear to extend the length of the slender antebrachium (forearm) of Terrestrisuchus for only one reason at present. The offset lengths of the shorter radius and longer ulna become subequal again with the addition of the longer radiale and shorter ulnare. So there is no simple hinge joint at the antebrachium/proximal carpal interface. So that joint was relatively immobile. The lack of deep distal carpals also suggests a lack of mobility at the metacarpal/distal carpal interface in basal taxa. However in extant crocs, that hinge appears to be more flexible.
(Fig. 5) the elongate fore limbs more closely match the hind limbs. So the elongate carpals in Trialestes do appear to enhance a secondarily evolved quadrupedal stance.
Also take a look at
Hesperosuchus, Dromicosuchus, Protosuchus. Saltoposuchus, Dibrothrosuchus, Baurusuchus, Simosuchus, and Pseudhesperosuchus. After long carpals first appeared in Terreistrisuchus, they do not change much despite the many other changes in the morphology of derived taxa. Bipeds have them. Quadrupeds have them. Long-bodied taxa have them, Short-bodied taxa have them.
Some thoughts arise
when considering the first crcoc with elongate carpals, Terrestrisuchus.
- At some point in the day Terrestrisuchus probably rested on its elongate pubis bone (the first in this lineage), flexing its long hind limbs beneath itself to do so. In that pose elongate carpals may have been useful in steadying the animal as it balanced on the pubis tip and whenever it rose to a bipedal stance.
- A male Terrestrisuchus may have used its hands to steady itself while riding on the back of a female while mating. The carpals were elongated as part of the balancing act performed during this possibly awkward bipedal conjugation.
- Coincidentally, the coracoids in crocodylomorphs begin to elongate in this taxon. So freed from quadrupedal locomotion duties, basal crocs may have done some early form of flapping as part of a secondary sexual behavior, long since lost in extant taxa.
So, in summary
I think the elongate carpals developed in crocs with a really long pubis to steady it while resting. Very passive. Not sure what other explanation explains more.
Did I miss anything?
Has anyone else promoted similar or competing hypotheses?
Crush PJ 1984. A late upper Triassic sphenosuchid crocodilian from Wales. Palaeontology 27: 131-157.