Published in Nature today
a Mongolian Late Cretaceous theropod that was rescued from the black market! It is supposed to be aquatic… but is it?
Figure 1. Halszkaraptor escuillei was originally considered an aquatic basal dromaosaur, but here nests with Shuvuuia, a sprinting biped. It might not have been this chubby in the torso. All art is from Cau et al. 2017.
Halszkaraptor escuilliei (Cau et al. 2017; Late Cretaceous, Fig. 1) was originally considered an aquatic basal dromaeosaur related to Mahakala, but here Halszkaraptor nests with Shuvuuia, Haplocheirus and other non-aquatic sprinting dromaeosaurids. Manual digit 3 was the longest, but the thumb had the largest claw. The naris was displaced posteriorly. The fossil is preserved in 3D, largely articulated.
Figure 2. Shuvuuia and Mononykus to scale in various poses. The odd digit 1 forelimb claws appear to be retained for clasping medial cylinders, like tree trunks. The forelimb is very strong. Perhaps these taxa rest vertically and run horizontally. Click to enlarge.
The Cau et al. cladogram
has many more bird-like theropods than the LRT. The taxa that nest together with Halszkaraptor in the LRT are sprinkled throughout the Cau et al. cladogram. In fact, all of the theropods that the two cladograms have in common nest in completely different nodes and leaves, except Haplocheirus nests in the same clade as Shuvuuia in both trees. Is this a case of taxon exclusion on the part of the LRT? Or just what happens when you score different traits? No reconstructions of sister taxa were provided.
FIgure 2. Subset of the LRT focusing on pre-bird theropods. The taxa in the Velociraptor clade are sprinkled throughout the Cau et al. cladogram of theropods.
Let’s look at the pertinent parts of the Cau et al. abstract:
“Propagation X-ray phase-contrast synchrotron microtomography of a well-preserved maniraptoran from Mongolia, still partially embedded in the rock matrix, revealed a mosaic of features, most of them absent among non-avian maniraptorans but shared by reptilian and avian groups with aquatic or semiaquatic ecologies.
“This new theropod, Halszkaraptor escuillieigen. et sp. nov., is related to other enigmatic Late Cretaceous maniraptorans from Mongolia in a novel clade at the root of Dromaeosauridae. This lineage adds an amphibious ecomorphology to those evolved by maniraptorans: it acquired a predatory mode that relied mainly on neck hyperelongation for food procurement, it coupled the obligatory bipedalism of theropods with forelimb proportions that may support a swimming function, and it developed postural adaptations convergent with short-tailed birds.”
What about this theropod screams, “I’m aquatic!!” ?? This is one I just don’t see.
In the LRT
Halszkaraptor does not nest with other aquatic taxa. The neck is not particularly long compared to coeval Mononykus (Fig. 2), which has never been considered aquatic. The skull is very much like that of coeval Shuvuuia.
Described in the press
as one of the oddest fossil yet found
. This adjective usually gets attached to errors in identification
is not that odd. NatGeo reports, “Like modern aquatic predators, this dinosaur’s face seems to have had an exquisite sense of touch, useful for finding prey in murky waters. Its small teeth would have helped it nab tiny fish, and its limber backbone and flipper-like forelimbs suggest that it cut through the water with ease.”
This added later:
Apparently others have also seen the Shuvuuia
connection. Author Andrea Cau listed 25 traits here
that distinguish Halszkaraptor
but are found in dromaeosaurids. Perhaps this could all be cleared up easily, because in the LRT, Shuvuuia
IS also a dromaeosaurid, not a distantly related theropod, as it nests in Cau et al. 2017.
Cau A, et al. 2017. Synchrotron scanning reveals amphibious ecomorphology in a new clade of bird-like dinosaurs. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature24679