Was Vellbergia really a juvenile basal lepidosaur? Let’s check…

Earlier we looked at tiny Vellbergia
(Sobral, Simoes and Schoch 2020; Middle Triassic) represented by a disarticulated tiny skull (Fig. 1). The large reptile tree (LRT) nested this hatchling with the much larger adult Prolacerta (Fig. 1). The MPT was 20263 steps for 1654 taxa.

The LRT nesting ran counter to the SuppData cladogram
of Sobral, Simoes and Schoch 2020, who nested Vellbergia among basal lepidosaurs, the closest of which are shown here (Fig. 1). Earlier I did not show the competing lepidosaur candidates. That was an oversight rectified today.

Figure 1. Vellbegia compared to the lepidosaurs it would nest with if Prolacerta and all Archosauromorpha were deleted.

Figure 1. Vellbegia compared to the lepidosaurs it would nest with if Prolacerta and all Archosauromorpha were deleted. Gray areas on Vellbergia indicate restored bone that is lost in the fossil.

To test the lepidosaur hypothesis of relationships,
I deleted all Archosauromorph taxa, including Prolacerta, from the LRT to see where among the Lepidosauromorpha Vellbergia would nest. With no loss of resolution, Vellbergia nested between Palaegama and Tjubina + Huehuecuetzpalli at the base of the Tritosauria plus Fraxinisaura + Lacertulus (Fig. 1) at the base of the Protosquamata. The resulting MPT was 20276 steps, only 13 more than the Prolacerta hypothesis of interrelationships.

That is a remarkably small number considering the great phylogenetic distance between these taxa in the LRT.

Rampant convergence
is readily visible among the competing taxa (Fig. 1). No wonder Prolacerta was named “before Lacerta“, the extant squamate. According to Wikipedia, “Due to its small size and lizard-like appearance, Parrington (1935) subsequently placed Prolacerta between basal younginids and modern lizards. In the 1970s (Gow 1975) the close link between Prolacerta and crown archosaurs was first hypothesized.” That was prior to cladistic software and suffered from massive taxon exclusion.

Allometry vs. Isometry
One of the lepidosaurs shown above, Huehuecuetzpalli (Fig. 1), is known from both an adult and juvenile. The older and younger specimens were originally (Reynoso 1998) considered identical in proportion. Such isometry is an ontogenetic trait shared with other tritosaur lepidosaur clade members, including pterosaurs. On the other hand, if Vellbergia was a hatchling of Prolacerta, some measure of typical archosauromorph allometry should be readily apparent… and it is… including incomplete ossification of the nasals, frontals and parietals along with a relatively larger orbit and shorter rostrum, giving Vellbergia a traditional ‘cute’ appearance appropriate for its clade.

Sobral, Simoes and Schoch considered Vellbergia a juvenile, but it is similar in size to the adult lepidosaurs shown here (Fig. 1). On the other hand, Vellbergia is appropriately smaller than Prolacerta, in line with its hatchling status.

Remember also that Vellbergia is from the Middle Triassic. Prolacerta is from the Early Triassic. They were not found together and some differences are to be expected just from the millions of years separating them.

For comparison: another juvenile Prolacerta,
this time from Early Triassic Antarctica (Spiekman 2018; AMNH 9520), is much larger than Vellbergia from Middle Triassic Germany (Fig. 2), but just as cute. Note the relatively larger orbit and shorter rostrum compared to the adult Prolacerta (Fig. 1), traits likewise found in Vellbergia.

Figure 2. Small Prolacerta specimen AMNH 9520 from Spiekman 2018 compared to scale with Vellbergia.

Figure 2. Small Prolacerta specimen AMNH 9520 from Spiekman 2018 compared to scale with Vellbergia. Sclerotic rings (SCL) identified by Spiekman 2018 are re-identified as pterygoids here.

crushed, disarticulated and incomplete juvenile specimens of allometric taxa are difficult to compare with adults. Even so, what is left of hatchling Vellbergia tends to resemble the larger juvenile and adult specimens of Prolacerta more than hatchling Vellbergia resembles the similarly-sized adult lepidosaurs it nests with in the absence of Prolacerta from the taxon list.

Phylogenetic analysis is an inexact science.
Nevertheless no other known method breaks down and rebuilds thousands of taxa more precisely. Only taxon exclusion appears to trip up workers at present.

Gow CE 1975. The morphology and relationships of Youngina capensis Broom and Prolacerta broomi Parrington. Palaeontologia Africana, 18:89-131.
Parrington FR 1935. On Prolacerta broomi gen. et sp. nov. and the origin of lizards. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 16, 197–205.
Reynoso V-H 1998. Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus gen. et sp. nov: a basal squamate (Reptilia) from the Early Cretaceous of Tepexi de Rodríguez, Central México. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London B 353:477-500.
Sobral G, Simoes TR and Schoch RR 2020. A tiny new Middle Triassic stem-lepidosauromorph from Germany: implications fro the early evolution of lepidosauromorphs and the Vellberg fauna. Nature.com Scientific Reports 10, Article number: 2273.
Spiekman SNF 2018. A new specimen of Prolacerta broomi from the lower Fremouw Formation (Early Triassic) of Antarctica, its biogeographical implications and a taxonomic revision. Nature.com/scientificreports (2018)8:17996


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