Updated July 13, 2017 with new bone identifications for Triopticus. These further cement the sisterhood to Tanytrachelos.
It’s been a long time
since an interesting ‘reptile’ showed up in the literature. Especially an ‘enigma’ like this one.
A recent paper by Stocker et al. 2016
reports on a domed and expanded Late Triassic cranium that they identify as an archosaur, but it’s unlike that of any other archosaur. Triopticus primus was named for its three eyes, with a big one on top (Fig. 1). The authors compared the domed appearance of the cranium in Triopticus with a Cretaceous dome-headed ornithischian dinosaur, Stegoceras. They also discussed convergence in general and provided a CT scan brain endocast of Triopticus.
the authors employed a prior cladogram (Fig. 2) by Nesbit et al. 2015, expanded from Pritchard et al. 2015. that was shown to not recover sister taxa that looked alike and did not provide a gradual accumulation of derived traits at several nodes. In their cladogram Triopticus nested without resolution among basal archosauriforms like Proterosuchus, which looks nothing like it. By contrast, the LRT was able nest and fully resolve Triopticus elsewhere.
Figure 1. In round 1 I added characters shown here to the LRT in two passes. One recovered a sisterhood with mesosaurs. The other nested with Tanytrachelos, among the tanystropheid tritosaur lepidosaurs. Both shown here for comparison. Triopticus would be 2x the size of the giant Tanyrachelos from New Mexico.
From the Stocker et al. abstract: “Exemplifying this extreme morphological convergence, we present here a new dome-headed taxon from the assemblage, which further illustrates the extraordinary range of morphological disparity present early in the Late Triassic.” That ‘extraordinary range’ should be — and will be — chopped down substantially with the right sister taxa.
A few problems with the archosauriform hypothesis include:
- No other archosauriforms, until you get to pachycelphalosaurs in the Cretaceous, expand the cranium deleting the upper temporal fenestra.
- The entire rostrum and mandible is absent, so no naris, antorbital fenestra or teeth are known, even in part.
- They dubiously identified an antorbital fenestra and fossa at the edge of the fossil.
- …and they were not aware that Tanytrachelos and kin, including pterosaurs within the – Lepidosauria -, also have an antorbital fenestra, but without a fossa.
- A large pineal opening is present, but never present at such a size in archosauriforms.
- The extreme angle of the rostrum coupled with the large orbit are traits not found in basal archosauriforms that typically have a long boxy rostrum.
Figure 2. Stocker et al. 2106 cladogram nesting Triopticus uncertainly within a set of unresolved basal archosauriforms and far from the Tanystropheidae. The LRT completely resolves all nodes. Note how this cladogram mixes Lepidosauromorpha with Archosauromorpha and separates the protorosaurus, Protorosaurus and Prolacerta.
This is a perfect problem
for the large reptile tree (LRT) which now provides then 820, now 1036 opportunities for Triopticus to nest in. With that large number of taxa, unfortunately I had to split the matrix in two, even for a simple Heuristic Search. By contrast, the Stocker et al. matrix included 30 taxa and 247 characters.
Stocker et al. report,
“We chose this dataset because the following combination of character states in Triopticus are also present in some archosauromorph taxa:
- presence of a single occipital condyle;
- ossified laterosphenoid;
- presence of a metotic strut of the otoccipital;
- presence of upper and lower temporal fenestrae;
- presence of an antorbital fenestra and fossa formed by the lacrimal.”
They provided no reconstructions of included taxa.
I tested Triopticus against basal tetrapods and the new Lepidosaurmorpha and found that Triopticus nested with the aquatic, long-necked tritosaur Tanytrachelos (Fig. 1), large specimens of which were recently found in New Mexico (Fig. 3). Like Triopticus the rostrum descends at a high angle from a tall cranium in Tanytrachelos, which also shares a large orbit and a large pineal foramen (at present known only from sister taxa). Like related fenestrasaurs and langobardisaurs, Tanytrachelos also had a small antorbital fenestra without a fossa, but that would have been beyond the rim of the broken skull in Triopticus (Fig. 5).
Figure 3. A large incomplete Tanytrachelos from New Mexico compared to the smaller more complete East Coast specimen. Triopticus would be twice as large as the New Mexico specimen.
I tested Triopticus with the rest of the matrix, the new Archosauromorpha, and found that Triopticus nested with the mesosaurs (Fig. 4), an aquatic enaliosaur clade close to thalattosaurs and ichthyosaurs, all derived from basal pachypleurosaurs. It did not nest with archosauriforms. While basal mesosaurs have typical diapsid temporal regions, Mesosaurus, like Triopticus, closes up the upper temporal fenestra, then the lateral temporal fenestra with bone expansion. Mesosaurs also retain a relatively large pineal foramen and have large eyes, but they don’t have a sharply descending preorbital region.
Figure 4. Mesosaurus, like Triopticus, has a large pineal foramen and expands the skull bones to obliterate former temporal fenestrae.
Digital Graphic Segregation
was applied to the cranial lump that is Triopticus (Fig. 5) and the skull suture patterns, perhaps overlooked by those with firsthand access due to the expansion of the cranial bones, revealed a Tanytrachelos-like morphology (Fig. 2). I illustrate this interpretation here with the hope that this hypothesis can be either confirmed or falsified. This is a tough assignment.
Figure 5. Triopticus reconstructed along the bauplan of Tanytrachelos. The upper temporal fenestra is the top half of a divided lateral temporal fenestra. At 72 dpi this is 90 percent of actual size.
have been reported from the Hayden Quarry of northern New Mexico (Chinle Formation) far from the west central Texas location of Otis Chalk. Stocker et al. included Tanytrachelos in their study, even though they have not provided a reconstruction of it, so it is difficult to imagine how they interpreted it. Tanystropheids, in general, have widely varying skull shapes. Triopticus appears to have expanded the morphospace just a little, not a lot.
The loss of ventral material in the Triopticus fossil
appears to have occurred at the roof the narial/oral opening.
So what other long-necked animal
expands the cranium like Triopticus? Giraffa, the giraffe. Maybe it will turn out to be a better analogy than short-necked Stegoceras?
Nesbitt SJ, Flynn JJ, Pritchard AC, Parrish JM, Ranivoharimanana L and Wyss AR 2015. Postcranial osteology of Azendohsaurus madagaskarensis (?Middle to Upper Triassic, Isalo Group, Madagascar) and its systematic position among stem archosaur reptiles. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 899, 1-125.
Pritchard AC, Turner AH, Nesbitt SJ, Irmis RB and Smith ND 2015. Late Triassic tanystropheid (Reptilia, Archosauromorpha) remains from northern New Mexico (Petrified Forest Member, Chinle Formation): insights into distribution, morphology, and paleoecology of Tanystropheidae. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 10.1080/02724634.02722014.02911186.
Stocker MR, NesbittSJ, Criswell KE, Parker WG, Witmer LM, Rowe TB, Ridgely R Brown MA 2016. A Dome-Headed Stem Archosaur Exemplifies Convergence among Dinosaurs and Their Distant Relatives. Current Biology (advance online publication)DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.066 pdf