New radical dinosaur cladogram: Baron, Norman and Barrett 2017

Baron, Norman and Barrett 2017
have just allied Ornithischia with Theropoda to the exclusion of Sauropodomorpha. That radical hypothesis was not recovered by the large reptile tree (LRT, 980 taxa) nor any other study in the long history of dinosaurs. Despite the large size of their study, it was not large enough. And so taxon exclusion bites another group of well-meaning paleontologists who used traditional small inclusion sets.

From the Baron et al. abstract:
“For 130 years, dinosaurs have been divided into two distinct clades—Ornithischia and Saurischia. Here we present a hypothesis for the phylogenetic relationships of the major dinosaurian groups that challenges the current consensus concerning early dinosaur evolution and highlights problematic aspects of current cladistic definitions. Our study has found a sister-group relationship between Ornithischia and Theropoda (united in the new clade Ornithoscelida), with Sauropodomorpha and Herrerasauridae (as the redefined Saurischia) forming its monophyletic outgroup. This new tree topology requires redefinition and rediagnosis of Dinosauria and the subsidiary dinosaurian clades. In addition, it forces re-evaluations of early dinosaur cladogenesis and character evolution, suggests that hypercarnivory was acquired independently in herrerasaurids and theropods, and offers an explanation for many of the anatomical features previously regarded as notable convergences between theropods and early ornithischians.”

As a reminder, the fully resolved cladogram
at finds Herrerasaurus as a basal dinosaur arising from the Pseudhesperosuchus clade. Tawa (Fig. 1) and Buriolestes lead the way toward Theropoda. Barberenasuchus and Eodromaeus are basal to Phytodinosauria, which includes Sauropodomorpha + Ornithischia. So the Nature piece is totally different due to taxon exclusion and improper taxon inclusion.

Earlier heretical dinosaur origins were presented here with images and complete resolution with high Bootstrap scores at every or virtually every node.

Problems with the Baron et al. report

  1. Lack of resolution: Over dozens of nodes, only 5 bootstrap scores were over 50 (the minimum score that PAUP shows as fully resolved).
  2. Lack of correct proximal outgroup taxa (taxon exclusion) and they chose several wrong outgroup taxa (see below) because they had no large gamut analysis that established the correct outgroup taxon out of a larger gamut of choices
  3. Lack of several basal dinosaur taxa. (again, taxon exclusion, see below)
  4. Improper taxon inclusion: poposaurs, pterosaurs and lagerpetons are not related to dinos or their closest kin
  5. Lacking reconstructions for all pertinent basal/transitinal taxa so we can see their data at a glance, see if a gradual accumulation of traits can be observed and not have to slog through all the scores
Figure 1. Unrelated archosaurs. Silesaurus is a poposaur. Eoraptor is a phytodinosaur (note the big belly). And Tawa is a lean theropod.

Figure 1. Unrelated archosaurs mentioned in this blog. Silesaurus is a poposaur. Eoraptor is a phytodinosaur (note the big belly). And Tawa is a lean theropod.

LRT differences with the Baron et. al results

  1. Carnivorous Staurikosaurus, Herrerasaurus, Chindesaurus and Sanjuansaurus nest at the base of the herbivorous Sauropodomorpha.
  2. Herbivorous Eoraptor nests at the base of the Theropod with Tawa.
  3. Poorly known Saltopus sometimes nests as the last common ancestor of Dinosauria.
  4. Six taxa nest basal to dinosaurs in SupFig1 including the poposaur Silesaurus and kin. Silesaurus has ornithischian and theropod traits and so appears to make an ideal outgroup taxon,  but nests with neither clade when more taxa are included. This is the key problem with the study: pertinent taxon exclusion. 
  5. The lack of Gracilisuchus and other bipedal basal crocs that nest basal to dinos in the LRT certainly skewed results.

In an effort to understand Baron et al. I duplicated their outgroup taxon list
but retained all the LRT dinosaurs to see what would happen. The SupFigs are available free online at

  1. SupFig 1: When Euparkeria is the outgroup and Postosuchus is included: 3 trees result and (theropods Herrerasaurus + Tawa + Buriolestes) + (poposaurs Sacisaurus + Silesaurus) nest as the base of the Phytodinosauria, while bipedal croc Saltopus nests at the base of the Theropoda.
  2. SupFig 2: When the lepidosaur pterosaur Dimorphodon is the outgroup and Euparkeria + Postosuchus are excluded: 12 trees and basal scansoriopterygid birds (come to think of it, they DO look like Dimorphodon!) nest as basal dinosaurs, then the bird cladogram gets reversed such that basal becomes derived, but Phytodinosauria is retained.
  3. SupFig. 3: when Silesaurus is the outgroup: 12 trees and Phytodinosauria is retained in the LRT
  4. SupFig. 4: when no characters were treated as ordered. Neither does the  LRT order any characters, so this test was moot.

Dr. Kevin Padian said, 
“‘original and provocative reassessment of dinosaur origins and relationships”. And because Baron and his colleagues used well-accepted methods, he notes, the results can’t simply be dismissed as a different opinion or as mere speculation. “This will send people back to the drawing board,” he added in an interview.”

“There have been a lot of studies on the phylogenetic relationships, the family tree of the dinosaurs, but they’ve mostly been on individual dinosaurian groups. They haven’t really examined the entire dinosaur tree in such depth. And so this analysis had the advantage of using a different and larger set of critters than most previous trees. They’ve analyzed the characters used by others before and then also adding their own characteristics and getting their selves quite different configurations, radically different in fact.

The LRT has had, for several years, an even larger set of taxa, so large that any bias in selecting an outgroup taxon list has been minimized. Unfortunately, Baron et al. were biased and used traditional outgroup taxa that skewed their results.

Dr. Hans-DieterSues reported,
“For one thing, palaeontologists’ analyses of relations among species are keenly sensitive to which species are considered, as well as which and how many anatomical features are included, he says.”

Many more outgroup taxa would have minimized the inherent bias clearly present in Baron et al. When Silesaurus is your outgroup, herbivores will nest with carnivores. When you start your study with a goal in mind (read and listen to Baron’s comments) that’s never good. When you exclude taxa that have been shown to be pertinent to your study, that’s never good.

That’s what is here for (on the worldwide web). Free. Testable. And with a demonstrable gradual accumulation of traits along with minimal bias due to its large gamut.

I was surprised to see Nature print this
because they have not published relationship hypotheses in favor of  new specimens of note. Co-author Dr. David Norman has published for several decades and has a great reputation.

Baron MG, Norman DB, Barrett PM 2017. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature  543:501–506.

Trimerorhachis: a late survivor of the fin/finger transition?

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis was considered a dvinosaurian temnospondyl. Here both Trimerorhachis and Dvinosaurus nest low on the basal tetrapod tree, close to the fin/finger transition.

Figure 1. Flattened Trimerorhachis was considered a dvinosaurian temnospondyl. Here both Trimerorhachis and Dvinosaurus nest low on the basal tetrapod tree, close to the fin/finger transition, not within the Temnospondyli. Both are late survivors of a Devonian radiation.

Wikipedia reports:
Trimerorhachis (Early Permian, (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; up to 1m in length) is an extinct genus of dvinosaurian temnospondyl within the family Trimerorhachidae. The trunk is long and the limbs are relatively short. Many bones are poorly ossified, indicating that Trimerorhachis was poorly suited for movement on land. The presence of a branchial apparatus indicates that Trimerorhachis had external gills in life. The body of Trimerorhachis is also completely covered by small and very thin osteoderms, which overlap and can be up to 20 layers thick. The scales were more similar to fish scales than they were to reptile scales, according to Colbert 1955. However, Olson 1979 disputed that interpretation. Specimens are often preserved as masses of bones that are mixed together and densely packed in slabs of rock”

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis forelimb and hind limb in situ and reconstructed.

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis forelimb and hind limb in situ and reconstructed. Pawley 1979 did not report metacarpals or a pubis. It is possible and perhaps likely that only 4 metacarpals were present along with two phalanges, but its worth exploring all possibilities. 

As a late (Early Permian) survivor of a Late Devonian radiation
Trimerorhachis evolved by convergence certain traits found in other more derived tetrapods, like a longer femur and open palate (narrow, bowed pterygoids). Testing all possibilities while minimizing assumptions is the most valuable benefit of a large gamut phylogenetic analysis conducted by unbiased software. Workers used to eyeball specimens in the pre-computer days.

Figure 2. Trimerorhachis pelvis. The pubis is not ossified.

Figure 3. Trimerorhachis pelvis. The pubis is not ossified here, according to Pawley 1979, but see Fig. 1.

Like other workers,
Pawley 1979 considered Trimerorhachis close to Dvinosaurus (Fig. 7) and both thought to be derived from the basal temnospondyl Balanerpeton and Dendrerpeton. The large reptile tree (LRT) nests both taxa at the base of the Lepodpondyli, not closely related to Trimerorhachis and distinct from Temnospondyli. Pawley supports the hypothesis that aquatic ‘temnospondyls,’ like Trimerorhachis, had terrestrial ancestors. By contrast, the LRT nests Trimerorhachis with weak-limbed taxa more primitive than any temnospondyl.

the LRT nests Batrachosaurus and Gerrothorax in the Dvinosaurus / Trimerorhachis clade. This clade features horizontally opposed dorsal ribs and an equally flattened skull. Another flattened taxon, Ossinodus, is closely related. I have not seen limb material for any of these taxa. Acanthostega is the closest taxon that preserves limbs.

Figure 3. Trimerorhachis hind limb and pes from Pawley 1979.

Figure 4. Trimerorhachis hind limb and pes from Pawley 1979 and reconstructed here.

Pawley 1979 noted,
“The vast majority of the [Trimerorhachis] specimens consists of ornamental cranial and pectoral girdle bones, intercentra, and larger elements of the appendicular skeleton. Neural arches, pleurocentra, ribs and distal limb elements are rare.” No sacrals were found by Pawley. No dorsal ribs had uncinate processes (like those in Ichthyostega and Eryops). The chevrons were long and tapered distally (creating a fin?). The interclavicle was diamond-shaped with a longer anterior portion.

Figure 4. Trimerorhachis humerus changes during ontogeny

Figure 5. Trimerorhachis humerus changes during ontogeny

The humerus
(Fig. 5) was  L-shaped and the degree of torsion varied between specimens from 45º to 90º. The distal end always exhibited a low degree of ossification.

Figure 6. Trimerorhachis cladogram. Gray area is the Temnospondyli clade.

Figure 6. Trimerorhachis cladogram. Gray area is the Temnospondyli clade.

Pawley considered
Trimerorhachis a secondarily adapted aquatic temnospondyl. All workers have noted the wide open palate vacuities that characterize most, but not all members of the Temnospondyli. By contrast, the LRT nests Trimerorhachis with taxa that had not yet left the water completely and shared a flat morphology with Tiktaalik and Panderichthys.

This is the second time
elongate limbs and digits have appeared by convergence in basal tetrapods. Earlier Pholidogaster and kin provided the first exceptions to the rule. Note that all known specimens of Trimerorhachis are Early Permian, some tens of millions of years later than the Late Devonian radiation of that clade. The Ichthyostega line is the one that ultimately produced crown Tetrapoda via a sister to Eucritta.

FIgure 8. Dvinosaurus nests with Trimerorhachis and also has ceratobranchial (gill) bones.

FIgure 7. Dvinosaurus nests with Trimerorhachis and also has ceratobranchial (gill) bones. The loss of the intertemoral is shown here in light green merging to the postorbital in orange. 

If these nestings are not correct
and Trimerorhachis ultimately nests higher on the basal tetrapod tree, then we’re witnessing massive convergence of another sort, convergence that allies Trimerorhachis with tetrapods at the fin/finger transition. I’d like to see limbs for Gerrothorax or any other plagiosaur, if available.

Figure 9. Ossinodus is a close relative of Trimerorhachis in the LRT.

Figure 8. Ossinodus is a close relative of Trimerorhachis in the LRT. 

By the way, I find this fascinating…
week after week, far and away the most popular page(s) on this blog continue to be on the origin of bats.

Berman DS and Reisz RR 1980. A new species of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia, Temnospondyli) from the Lower Permian Abo Formation of New Mexico, with discussion of Permian faunal distributions in that state. Annals of the Carnegie Museum. 49: 455–485.
Case EC 1935. Description of a collection of associated skeletons of Trimerorhachis. University of Michigan Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology. 4 (13): 227–274.
Colbert EH 1955. Scales in the Permian amphibian Trimerorhachis. American Museum Novitates. 1740: 1–17.
Olson EC 1979. Aspects of the biology of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia: Temnospondyli). Journal of Paleontology. 53 (1): 1–17.
Pawley K 2007. The postcranial skeleton of Trimerorhachis insignis Cope, 1878 (Temnospondyli: Trimerorhachidae): a plesiomorphic temnospondyl from the Lower Permian of North America. Journal of Paleontology. 81 (5):
Williston SW 1915. Trimerorhachis, a Permian temnospondyl amphibian. The Journal of Geology. 23 (3): 246–255.
Williston SW 1916. The skeleton of Trimerorhachis. The Journal of Geology. 24 (3): 291–297.


Trimerorhachis and kin to scale

Yesterday we took a revisionary look at Trimerorhachis insignis (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; Early Permian; 1m in length; Fig. 1). Today we take a quick peek at the taxa that surround it in the large reptile tree (LRT, 980 taxa, Fig. 1) all presented to scale. Several of these interrelationships have gone previously unrecognized. Hopefully seeing related taxa together will help one focus on their similarities and differences.

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis and kin to scale. Here are Panderichthys, Tiktaalik, Ossinodus, Dvinosaurus, Acanthostega, Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax. Note the twin supratemporals on Panderichthys determined by comparison to related taxa. And maybe those tabular horns on Acanthostega are really supratemporal horns, based on comparisons to related taxa.

Figure 1. Trimerorhachis and kin to scale. Here are Panderichthys, Tiktaalik, Ossinodus, Dvinosaurus, Acanthostega, Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax. Note the twin supratemporals on Panderichthys determined by comparison to related taxa. And maybe those tabular horns on Acanthostega are really supratemporal horns, based on comparisons to related taxa.

And once again
phylogenetic miniaturization appears at the base of a tetrapod clade. Note: the small size of Trimerorhachis (Fig. 1) may be due to the tens of millions of years that separate it in the Early Permian from its initial radiation in the Late Devonian, at which time similar specimens might have been larger. Provisionallly, we have to go with available evidence.

We start with…

Panderichthys rhombolepis (Gross 1941; Frasnian, Late Devonian, 380 mya; 90-130cm long; Fig. 1). Distinct from basal taxa, like Osteolepis, Pandericthys had a wide low skull, a wide low torso, a short tail and five digits (or metacarpals). No interfrontal was present. The orbits were further back and higher on the skull. Dorsal ribs, a pelvis and large bones within the four limbs were present.

Tiktaalik roseae (Daeschler, Shubin and Jenkins 2006; Late Devonian, 375mya: Fig. 1) nests between Pandericthys and Trimerorhachis in the LRT. Distinct from Panderichthys the opercular bones were absent and the orbits were even further back on the skull.

Ossinodus pueri (Warren and Turner 2004; Viséan, Lower Carboniferous; Fig. 1) was orignally considered close to Whatcheeria. Here it nests between Trimerorhachis and Acanthostega. The presence of an intertemporal appears likely. Distinct from Acanthostega, the skull is flatter, the naris is larger. Distinct from sister taxa, the maxilla is deep and houses twin canine fangs. A third fang arises from the palatine.

Acanthostega gunnari (Jarvik 1952; Clack 2006; Famennian, Late Devonian, 365mya; 60cm in length; Fig. 1) was an early tetrapod documenting the transition from fins to fingers and toes. Based on its size and placement, the nearly circular bone surrounding the otic notch is here identified as a supratemporal, not a tabular, which appears to be lost or a vestige fused to the supratemporal. This taxon is derived from a sister to Ossinodus and appears to have been an evolutionary dead end.

Trimerorhachis insignis (Cope 1878, Case 1935, Schoch 2013; Early Permian; 1m in length; Fig. 1) was considered a temnospondyl close to Dvinosaurus, but here nests as a late surviving basal tetrapod from the Late Devonian fin to finger transition. It is close to Ossinodus and still basal to Dvinosaurus (Fig. 1) and the plagiosaurs. As a late survivor, Trimerorhachis evolved certain traits found in other more derived tetrapods by convergence, like a longer femur and open palate. he presence of a branchial apparatus indicates that Trimerorhachis had external gills in life. Dorsally Trimerorhachis was covered with elongated scales, similar to fish scales.

Dvinosaurus primus (Amalitzky 1921; Late Permian; PIN2005/35; Fig. 1) Dvinosauria traditionally include Neldasaurus among tested taxa. Here Dvinosaurus nests basal to plagiosaurs like Batrachosuchus and Gerrothorax and was derived from a sister to Trimerorhachis.

Batrachosuchus browni (Broom 1903; Early Triassic, 250 mya; Fig. 1) nests with Gerrothorax, but does not have quite so wide a skull.

Gerrothorax pulcherrimus (Nilsson 1934, Jenkins et al. 2008; Late Triassic; Fig. 1) was originally considered a plagiosaurine temnospondyl. Here it nests with the Trimerorhachis clade some of which  share a lack of a supratemporal-tabular rim, straight lateral ribs and other traits.

This clade of flathead basal tetrapods
is convergent with the flat-headed Spathicephalus and Metoposaurus clades and several others.

Berman DS and Reisz RR 1980. A new species of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia, Temnospondyli) from the Lower Permian Abo Formation of New Mexico, with discussion of Permian faunal distributions in that state. Annals of the Carnegie Museum. 49: 455–485.
Broom R 1903. On a new Stegocephalian (Batrachosuchus browni) from the Karroo Beds of Aliwal North, South Africa. Geological Magazine, New Series, Decade IV 10(11):499-501
Case EC 1935. 
Description of a collection of associated skeletons of Trimerorhachis. University of Michigan Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology. 4 (13): 227–274.
Clack JA 2006. The emergence of early tetrapods. Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology. 232: 167–189.
Clack JA 2009. The fin to limb transition: new data, interpretations, and hypotheses from paleontology and developmental biology. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 37: 163–179.
Coates MI 2014. The Devonian tetrapod Acanthostega gunnari Jarvik: Postcranial anatomy, basal tetrapod interrelationships and patterns of skeletal evolution. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Coates MI and Clack JA 1990. Polydactly in the earliest known tetrapod limbs. Nature 347: 66-69.
Colbert EH 1955. Scales in the Permian amphibian. American Museum Novitates. 1740: 1–17.
Daeschler EB, Shubin NH and Jenkins FA, Jr 2006. A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature. 440 (7085): 757–763.
Gross W 1941. Über den Unterkiefer einiger devonischer Crossopterygier (About the lower jaw of some Devonian crossopterygians), Abhandlungen der preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften Jahrgang.
Jarvik E 1952. On the fish-like tail in the ichtyhyostegid stegocephalians. Meddelelser om Grønland 114: 1–90.
Jenkins FA Jr, Shubin NH, Gates SM and Warren A 2008. Gerrothorax pulcherrimus from the Upper Triassic Fleming Fjord Formation of East Greenland and a reassessment of head lifting in temnospondyl feeding. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 28 (4): 935–950.
Nilsson T 1934. Vorläufige mitteilung über einen Stegocephalenfund aus dem Rhät Schonens. Geologiska Föreningens I Stockholm Förehandlingar 56:428-442.
Olson EC 1979. Aspects of the biology of Trimerorhachis (Amphibia: Temnospondyli). Journal of Paleontology. 53 (1): 1–17.
Pawley K 2007. The postcranial skeleton of Trimerorhachis insignis Cope, 1878 (Temnospondyli: Trimerorhachidae): a plesiomorphic temnospondyl from the Lower Permian of North America. Journal of Paleontology. 81 (5):
Warren A and Turner S 2004. The first stem tetrapod from the Lower Carboniferous of Gondwana. Palaeontology 47(1):151-184.
Williston SW 1915. 
Trimerorhachis, a Permian temnospondyl amphibian. The Journal of Geology. 23 (3): 246–255.
Williston SW 1916. The skeleton of Trimerorhachis. The Journal of Geology. 24 (3): 291–297.



New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology volume

The 2015 pterosaur meeting in Portsmouth, England
brings us several new papers. The meeting and abstracts were previewed here and reported on here by a participant.

From the intro: “The field of pterosaur research in palaeontology continues its rapid growth and diversification that began in recent decades. This volume is a collection of papers on these extinct flying reptiles that includes work on their taxonomy, behaviour, ecology and relationships.”

Oddly, the number of abstracts far exceeded the very few papers this time.

Palmer 2017 wrote:
“The preservation of the wing membrane of pterosaurs is very poor and the available fossil evidence does not allow its properties to be reconstructed. In contrast, the fossil record for the wing bones is relatively good and the advent of CT scanning has made it possible to build high-fidelity structural models of the wing spar. The bending strength of the wing spar of a 6 m wingspan ornithocheirid pterosaur is used to infer the likely membrane tension. The tensions required to suppress aeroelastic flutter and to minimize ballooning of the membrane under flight loads are also estimated. All three estimates are of similar magnitude and imply that the membrane must have contained high-modulus material, supporting the view that the reinforcing aktinofibrils were keratinous.”

Contra Palmer’s unfounded assertion, there are several specimens of pterosaurs that provide an excellent view of the wing membrane. For the most part wing shape designs continue to be stuck in the Dark Ages among several pterosaur workers with some actually flipping the wing tips. Those problems need to improve before further work on pterosaur wings.

Dalla Vecchia 2017 wrote:
“An incomplete bone from the latest Cretaceous dinosaur site of Villaggio del Pescatore (Trieste Province, Italy) is definitely a wing metacarpal of a pterodactyloid pterosaur. It represents the only Italian Cretaceous pterosaur remains known, as well as the only pterosaur from the Adriatic Carbonate Platform. With an estimated minimum length of 136 mm, it belongs to a relatively small individual relative to the standard of latest Cretaceous pterodactyloids. It is not as elongated and gracile as azhdarchid wing metacarpals and shows a mix of features found in Pteranodon and some more basal pterodactyloids. It is one of the very few remains of putative non-azhdarchid pterosaurs from the upper Campanian–Maastrichtian worldwide and supports the view that the Azhdarchidae were not the only pterosaur clade existing during latest Cretaceous times.”

Always good to see the gamut of pterosaurs increase.

Witton 2017 wrote:
“Understanding the ecological roles of pterosaurs is a challenging pursuit, but one aided by a growing body of fossil evidence for their dietary preferences and roles as food sources for other species. Pterosaur foraging behaviour is represented by preserved gut content, stomach regurgitates, coprolites and feeding traces. Pterosaurs being eaten by other species are recorded by tooth marks and teeth embedded in their fossil bones, consumer gut content and regurgitate, and their preservation entangled with predatory animals. This palaeoecological record has improved in recent years, but remains highly selective. The Jurassic rhamphorhynchid Rhamphorhynchus, Cretaceous ornithocheiroid Pteranodon and azhdarchid pterosaurs currently have the most substantial palaeoecological records. The food species and consumers of these taxa conform to lifestyle predictions for these groups. Rhamphorhynchus and Pteranodon ate and were eaten by aquatic species, matching expectations of these animals as sea-going, perhaps partly aquatic species. Possible azhdarchid pterosaur foraging traces alongside pterosaur tracks, and evidence that these animals were eaten by dinosaurs and Crocodyliformes, are consistent with hypotheses that azhdarchids foraged and lived in terrestrial settings. Fossil evidence of pterosaur palaeoecology remains rare: researchers are strongly encouraged to put specimens showing details of dietary preferences, foraging strategies or interactions with other animals on record.”

When Pteranodon is no longer considered an ornithocheiroid by ptero workers, I will celebrate.

Bennett and Penkalski 2017 wrote:
“Four specimens of the pterosaur Pteranodon exhibit patterns of irregular alternating light and dark bands on the lateral surfaces of the upper jaw anterior to the nasoantorbital fenestra. Examinations reveal that the maxilla and premaxilla of Pteranodon consisted of two thin sheets of bone interconnected by regularly spaced septa with the spaces contained within presumably pneumatized, resulting in a structure analogous to modern honeycomb sandwich panels. The alternating light and dark bands resulted from waves of bone deposition moving anteriorly along the external surface of the lateral sheet of bone and laying down thin laminae of new bone while bone was simultaneously resorbed from the internal surface of the lateral sheet to maintain its thickness. The specimens that exhibit the bands were immature males and no banding was found in mature specimens or immature females. Therefore, the presence of the bands in immature males is interpreted as correlated with the enlargement and reshaping of the rostrum as males approached and attained sexual maturity.”

Wonder if those immature males were really just more primitive species with smaller size and smaller crest? Earlier Bennett erred by considering the morphological differences in various Pteranodon specimens ontogenetic, rather than phylogenetic. He failed to realize that Pteranodon specimens don’t get to giant size with giant crests without going through transitional mid-size specimens derived from certain small, crestless Germanodactylus specimens. The lamination of pterosaur skull bones is something first described here with the anterior extension of the jugal nearly to the tip of the rostrum. However, what these two workers are describing appears to be another thing entirely.

Martill and Moser 2017 wrote:
“Six specimens accessioned to the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, Germany, in 1966 are identified as coming from a gigantic pterodactyloid pterosaur. The previously undescribed material was obtained in 1955 by Jean Otto Haas and compares favourably in size with the type specimen of the Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) azhdarchid pterosaur Arambourgiania philadelphiae (Arambourg 1959) from the same locality/region. The material represents fragments of two cervical vertebrae, a neural arch, a left femur, a ?radius, and a metacarpal IV and bones of problematic identity, and does not duplicate the type material of Arambourgiania. The timing of its collection and its locality of Ruseifa, Jordan suggest it might pertain to the same individual as the holotype.” 

Interesting. More parts for the same specimen? That’s like more pieces to the same puzzle. On the other hand, when the term ‘pterodactyloid’ pterosaur falls by the wayside, I will also celebrate. Azhdarchids are not closely related tp Pterodactylus.

Rigal et al. 2017 wrote:
“A specimen of a pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand Formation (Early Cretaceous, Valanginian) of Bexhill, East Sussex, southern England is described. It comprises a small fragment of jaw with teeth, a partial vertebral column and associated incomplete wing bones. The juxtaposition of the bones suggests that the specimen was originally more complete and articulated. Its precise phylogenetic relationships are uncertain but it represents an indeterminate lonchodectid with affinities to Lonchodectes sagittirostris (Owen 1874) which is reviewed here, and may belong in Lonchodraco Rodrigues & Kellner 2013. This specimen is only the third record of pterosaurs from this formation.”

England is famous for excellent preservation of pterosaur bits and pieces, mostly jaws, as is the case here. The specimen is named Serradraco and has been known for over 150 years.

Henderson 2017 wrote:
“Simple, three-dimensional, digital models of the crania and mandibles of 22 pterosaurs – 13 pterodactyloids and nine non-pterodactyloids (‘rhamphorhynchoids’) – were generated to investigate gross-level mechanical aspects of the skulls as they would related to feeding behaviour such as bite force and speed of jaw motions. The key parameter was the determination of second moments of area of the mid-muzzle region and the computation of the bending moment relative to the occiput. The shorter, stockier skulls of basal ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ were the strongest for their size in terms of potential resistance to dorso-ventral bending, and this finding correlates with their robust dentitions. More derived ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ showed the start of a trend towards weaker skulls, but faster jaw adduction was interpreted to be an adaptation for the snatching of small prey. Pterodactyloids continued the trend to lengthen the skull and to reduce its cross-sectional area, resulting in less stiff skulls, but more rapid opening and closing of the jaws. Changes in the rear of the skulls and the development of coronoid eminences on the mandibles of all the pterodactyloids are correlated with the reduction in bite force and a concomitant increase in jaw closing speed.”

This makes sense, though I worry that ‘simple digital models’ by Henderson have not fared well in the past.

Hone, Jiang and Xu 2017 wrote: 
“After being inaccessible for a number of years, the holotype and other specimens of the dsungaripterid pterodactyloid pterosaur Noripterus complicidens are again available for study. Numerous taxa assigned to the Dsungaripteridae have been described since the erection of Noripterus, but with limited comparisons to this genus. Based on the information from Young’s original material here we revise the taxonomic identity of N. complicidens and that of other Asian dsungaripterids. We conclude that N. complicidens is likely to be distinct from the material recovered from Mongolia and this latter material should be placed in a separate genus.”

Okay. Wonderful. Thought I think some of us knew that already based on photo data.

And speaking of southern England…
did the U. of Leicester clade ever find the grad student they advertised for to prove the pterosaur quad leap hypothesis?

2017. New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology. Hone  DWE, Witton MP and Martill DM editors. Geological Society, London SP455.
Bennett SC and Penkalski P 2017. Waves of bone deposition on the rostrum of the pterosaur Pteranodon.
Dalla Vecchia FM 2017. A wing metacarpal from Italy and its implications for latest Cretaceous pterosaur diversity.
Henderson DM 2017. Using three-dimensional, digital models of pterosaur skulls for the investigation of their relative bite forces and feeding styles.
Hone DWE, Jiang S, and Xu X 2017. A taxonomic revision of Noripterus complicidens and Asian members of the Dsungaripteridae.
Martill DM and Moser M 2017. Topotype specimens probably attributable to the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Arambourgiania philadelphiae (Arambourg 1959).
Palmer C 2017. Inferring the properties of the pterosaur wing membrane.
Rigal S, Martill DM, and Sweetman SC 2017. A new pterosaur specimen from the Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand Formation (Cretaceous, Valanginian) of southern England and a review of Lonchodectes sagittirostris (Owen 1874).
Witton MP 2017. Pterosaurs in Mesozoic food webs: a review of fossil evidence.


Correcting mistakes on Brachydectes

Perhaps one of the most difficult skulls
in all of the Tetrapoda is Brachydectes newberryi ((Wellstead 1991; Latest Carboniferous, Fig. 1). Many bones are in their standard positions. However, the bones posterior to the orbit have moved around, fused or become lost. That’s where the trouble begins.

Figure 1. Brachydectes newberryi has some difficult to identify bones just aft of the orbit due to fusion and reduction. Brachydectes (Laysorophus) elongatus (Fig. 2) provides Rosetta Stone clues as to what is happening in this clade.

Figure 1. Brachydectes newberryi has some difficult to identify bones just aft of the orbit due to fusion and reduction. Brachydectes (Laysorophus tricarinatus) elongatus (Fig. 2) provides Rosetta Stone clues as to what is happening in this clade. Note the tabulars may be more of a square shape, as Pardo and Anderson drew, but did not identify as such. 

Finding data for
Brachydectes elongatus (formerly Lysorophus tricarinatus; Cope 1877, Carroll and Gaskill  1978, Wellstead 1991; Permian, 250 mya; AMNH 6172 ) provides many needed clues as to the identity of the mystery bones.  The data comes from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991. Earlier hypotheses included errors that I want to correct now. Based on phylogenetic bracketing these taxa nest with the caecilians Eocaecilia and Dermophis all derived from elongate microsaurs close to Archerontiscus, Oestocephalus, Adelogyrinus, Adelospondylus and Microbrachis in the large reptile tree (LRT). Unfotunatey, the latter taxa do not reduce the cheek and temple elements. So they were of little help.

Figure 2. Brachydectes elongatus (Lysorophus tricarinatus) from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991 with colors and new bone identities added.

Figure 2. Brachydectes elongatus (Lysorophus tricarinatus) from Carroll and Gaskill 1978 and Wellstead 1991 with colors and new bone identities added.

As you can see
in figure 2, most of the skull roofing bones and anterior skull bones of Brachydectes elongatus are in their standard spots and are therefore uncontroversial. So let’s nail down the rest of the bones with a parsimony check.

Figure 3. Brachydectes species compared to scale and not to scale. Size alone might warrant generic distinction.

Figure 3. Brachydectes species compared to scale and not to scale. Size alone might warrant generic distinction.

  1. No sister taxa have a large supraoccipital that contacts the parietals and extends over the skull roof. Here that light tan median bone is identified as a set of fused post parietals, as in sister taxa. A more typical supraoccipital may be peeking out as a sliver over the foramen magnum (spinal nerve opening, beneath the fused postparietals.
  2. No sister taxa separate the postparietals, so those in light red are identified here as tabulars, bones which typically form the posterior rim of sister taxa skulls and often provide corners to the skull.
  3. Typcially anterior to, but this time lateral to the new tabulars are the bright green supratemporals. As in sister taxa they maintain contact with the postorbitals (yellow/amber) and parietals (lavender/light purple). They form skull corners in B. elongulatus and rise above the plane of the cranium in B. newberryi – but still act as skull corners.
  4. The jugal is completely absent (unless a sliver of it is fused to the yellow-green quadratojugal lateral to the quadrate, The maxilla posterior to the eyeball is also absent.
  5. The postfrontal is fused to the parietal, with a slender strip maintaining contact with the postfrontal.
  6. The postorbital is in its standard position at the posterior orbit. Here it is roofed over by the supratemporal, as in Microbrachis.
  7. The squamosal is the tricky bone. It appears as a separate bright magenta element in B. elongulatus, but must be absent or fused to the postorbital in B. newberryi because it is otherwise not visible. I agree with previous workers on the identity of the squamosal in B. elongatus.

Bones may fuse, drift and change shape, but their connections to other bones often remain to help identify them using phylogenetic bracketing. Of course that requires a valid phylogenetic framework, one that minimizes taxon exclusion problems. The tabulars do not trade places with the postparietals in this hypothesis. The tabulars maintain their original places, lateral to the fused postparietals, bones which fuse by convergence in other taxa. Perhaps the concept of an autapomorphic oversized supraoccipittal was the source of earlier errors.

It’s interesting
that the opisthotics are posteriorly covered by the exoccipitals. That usually does not happen in most tetrapods, but is further emphasized in the caecilians, Eocaecilia and Dermophis. In competing candidate taxa Rhynchonkos, Batropetes and Microrator, a different pattern is present with the postparietals descending to cover large portions of the occiput and the tabulars are fused or absent.

Wellstead (1991) and perhaps others
made Brachydectes elongatus and Brachydectes newberryi congeneric, but I see enough differences here to warrant separate genera.

Pardo and Anderson 2016 reported, 
“Contra the proposals of some workers, we find no evidence of expected lissamphibian synapomorphies in the skull morphology in Brachydectes newberryi, and instead recognize a number of derived amniote characteristics within the braincase and suspensorium.

Our study reveals similarities between the braincase of Brachydectes and brachystelechid recumbirostrans, corroborating prior work suggesting a close relationship between these taxa.”

Pardo and Anderson freehand
a Brachydectes newberryi skull reconstruction to supplement their CT scans, but do not label the bones in the drawing. Present are paired bones posterior to the parietals and a single median bone posterior to those. Based on their text, the bones posterior to the parietals are identified as post parietals, “as in the majority of early tetrapods.’ Unfortunately, sister taxa among the microsaurs do not have a large supraoccipital. So this bone has to be reconsidered as a post parietal, which all related taxa have arching over the foramen magnum. Pardo and Anderson do not mention supratemporals, but all sister taxa in the LRT have them.

according to Wikipedia, are lepospondyl amphibians that include a large number of microsaurs. Of course, those are not derived amniotes. The LRT nests Brachydectes within the Microsauria (which is not a paraphyletic group here). The phylogenetic topology of Recumbirostrans recovered by Glienke (2012) do not create the same topology in the LRT, perhaps due to taxon exclusion. Glienke recovers Eocaecilia close to Rhynchonkos (in the absence of Adelospondyli). In both studies Microbrachis is basal.

The process of discovery
is often the process of correcting errors. And, as you can see, I’m glad to do so when errors are detected, whether out there or in here. Apologies for earlier errors. We’re all learning and helping each other to learn here.


Carroll RL and Gaskill P 1978. The order Microsauria. American Philosophical Society Memoires 126: 211 pp.
Cope ED 1877. Description of extinct Vertebrata from the Permian and Triassic formations of the United States. Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 17: 182-193.
Pardo JD and Anderson JS 2016. Cranial Morphology of the Carboniferous-Permian Tetrapod Brachydectes newberryi (Lepospondyli, Lysorophia): New Data from μCT. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161823. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161823
Wellstead C F 1991. Taxonomic revision of the Lysorophia, Permo-Carboniferous lepospondyl amphibians. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 209: 1–90.


Koilops: a sister for Spathicephalus

Paleontologists have long recognized
that Spathicephalus (Fig. 1) was a close relative of baphetids, like Baphetes, ever since Watson (1929). Two main features link Spathicephalus with baphetids: antorbital fenestrae that have fused with the orbits, and a closed palate formed mostly from a pair of broad pterygoid bones.

Figure 1. Spathicephalus, a filter feeding temnospondyl with elongate orbits now nests with Koilops.

Figure 1. Spathicephalus, a filter feeding temnospondyl with elongate orbits now nests with Koilops.

Spathicephalus mirus (Watson 1926; Late Carboniferous, 320 mya) was described, “unlike that of any other early tetrapod, with a flattened, square-shaped skull and jaws lined with hundreds of very small chisel-like teeth.” The extended orbit shape traditionally allied Spathicephalus with Baphetes, but here in the large reptile tree (LRT, 978 taxa) it nests with two other flat-headed temnospondyls, Gerrerpeton and Koilops (Fig. 2), apart from Baphetes. The fossil does not show tooth replacement as every tooth is present without gaps. Distinct from derived temnospondyls, but like basal forms, the palate is closed on this bottom-feeder. Long before the publication of Koilops Milner et al. 2009 nested Spathicephalus close to Eucritta and Baphetes, but that relationship was not recovered in the LRT, despite sharing a closed palate. The elongate orbit without intrusions is convergent with that of Baphetes.

Figure 2. Koilops is a flat-headed sister to Spathicephalus, but with teeth, larger orbits and a shorter snout.

Figure 2. Koilops is a flat-headed sister to Spathicephalus, but with teeth, larger orbits and a shorter snout.

Koilops herma (Clack et al. 2016; NMS G. 2013.39/14) Tournasian, early Carboniferous ~375 mya) is a temnospondyl with a flat skull and large orbits nesting between Greererpeton and Spathicephalus. The nares were close to the rim of the short rorstrum. The pineal foramen was enormous. The teeth were small and sharp. The nasals were broad.

Clack et al. (14 other authors) 2016. Phylogenetic and environmental context of a Tournaisian tetrapod fauna. Nature ecology & evolution 1(0002):1-11.
Milner AC, Milner AR, Walsh SA 2009. A new specimen of Baphetes from Nýřany, Czech Republic and the intrinsic relationships of the Baphetidae. Acta Zoologica 90: 318.
Watson DMS 1929. Croonian Lecture. The evolution of the Amphibia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London B 214:189-257.


Apateon and the origin of salamanders + frogs

Figure 1. Apateon overall and the skull in palatal and dorsal views. This taxon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the LRT.

Figure 1. Apateon overall and the skull in palatal and dorsal views. This taxon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the LRT.

Apateon pedestris (von Meyer 1844, Early Permian, 295mya; 12 cm in length) was long considered a temnospondyl in the family Branchiosauridae. Here Apateon nests between Doleserpeton and Gerobatrachus in the lepospondyl lineage of frogs, like Rana and salamanders like Andrias.

Resembling a small salamander with a long, laterally flattened tail, Apateon had a shorter rostrum and large orbits than Doleserpeton. The pineal opening was larger. The ilium was more erect. The pubis was missing. The ectopterygoid did not contact the maxilla and the palatine did so only with a narrow process. At present, no other taxa in the LRT (978 taxa) do this.

Small scales covered the body. Three pairs of external gills were present for underwater respiration. Many species are known, as well as a good ontogenetic series.

Anderson 2008 reported, 
“Branchiosaurs [including Apateon] are closely related to amphibamids, if not included in the latter group, and have been suggested to be closely related to salamanders because of shared similarities in the sequence of cranial ossification.”

“New transitional fossils like the stem batrachian Gerobatrachus have filled in the morphological gap between amphibamid temnospondyls and the earliest frogs and salamanders, and this portion of the lissamphibian origins question appears very well supported.”

The LRT recovers
Amphibamus much closer to the base of the lepospondyls, about 5 nodes distant from Apateon. Of course, neither are closely associated with temnospondyls in the LRT, despite the open palate, otic notch and other convergent traits.

The apparent lack of gill-less adults among all of the apparent larval gilled specimens of Apateon was a cause of consternation for awhile. The new largest specimen (Frobisch and Schoch 2009) appears to indicate an adult specimen. It had partially interdigitating and tight sutures of the skull roof, a high degree of ossification and differentiation of the postcranium as compared to smaller larval specimens. Uncinate processes indicate that this specimen represents an adult. However, it lacks ossifications of the exoccipitals and quadrates, intercentra, and the coracoid as seen in metamorphosed specimens. Frobisch and Schoch conclude, “The anatomical evidence at hand clearly indicates that both life history strategies, metamorphosis and neoteny, were established in Paleozoic branchiosaurids.”

Anderson JS 2008. Focal Reviews: The Origin(s) of Modern Amphibians. Eovlutionary Biology 35:231-247.
Anderson JS et al. 2008.  
A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas
and the origin of frogs and salamanders. Nature 453 (7194): 515–518.
Frobisch N and Schoch RR 2009. The largest specimen of Apateon and the life history pathway of neotony in the Paleozoic temnospondyl family Branchiosauridae. Fossil Record 12(1):83-90.
von Meyer H 1844. Briefliche Mittheilung an Prof. Bronn gerichtet. Neues Jahrbuch für Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde 1844: 329-340.