Pisanosaurus and the Triassic ornithischian crisis

Pisanosaurus mertii holotype. Dorsal vertebrae in left lateral (A) and right lateral (B) views. Scale bar: 5 cm. From Agnolín and Rozadilla, 2017.

In 1887, Harry Govier Seeley was the first to subdivide dinosaurs into Saurischians and the Ornithischians based on the nature of their pelvic bones and joints. While the clade Saurischia is well represented in the Late Triassic, the record of the Ornithischia is certainly more problematic. Only a single Triassic ornithischian taxon was generally considered to still be valid: Pisanosaurus mertii, originally described by Argentinian paleontologist Rodolfo Casamiquela in 1967, based on a poorly preserved but articulated skeleton from the upper levels of the Ischigualasto Formation (Late Triassic).

The holotype and only known specimen (PVL 2577) is a fragmentary skeleton including partial upper and lower jaws, seven articulated dorsal vertebrae, four fragmentary vertebrae of uncertain position in the column; the impression of the central portion of the pelvis and sacrum; an articulated partial hind limb including the right tibia; fibula; proximal tarsals and pedal digits III and IV; the distal ends of the right and left femora; a left scapular blade (currently lost); a probable metacarpal III;  and the impressions of some metacarpals (currently lost).

Reconstructed skeleton reflecting the traditional interpretation of Pisanosaurus (Royal Ontario Museum)

But Pisanosaurus shows some derived traits that resulted as unambiguous synapomorphies of the Silesauridae clade, and include: reduced to absent denticles on maxillary and dentary teeth; sacral ribs shared between two sacral vertebrae; lateral side of proximal tibia with a fibular flange; dorsoventrally flattened ungual phalanges; and ankylothecodonty, teeth partially fused to maxilla and dentary bone. The inclusion of Pisanosaurus within Silesauridae implies that this taxon does not constitute the oldest ornithischian. This is consistent with previous interpretations proposing that ornithischian radiation occurred after the Triassic–Jurassic boundary.

To explain the relatively low diversity exhibited by Ornithischia in the Late Triassic-Early Jurassic, several hypotheses have been proposed. One, suggests that Ornithischia is the sister-taxon of Neotheropoda (the least inclusive clade that includes Coelophysis and modern birds) within the clade of ‘traditional theropod taxa’. In this model, a ‘transitional’ ornithischian may possess some anatomical features of theropods that appear to be more like those in more derived than Eodromaeus murphi and Tawa hallae.

Hypothesis 4, in which Ornithischia forms the sister-taxon of Averostra (From Baron 2017)

In a second hypothesis, Ornithischia is positioned as the sister-taxon to the coelophysids. In this model, Neotheropoda and Ornithoscelida would encompass the same set of taxa, but Ornithoscelida would, theoretically, take priority of Neotheropoda as it is the older name. In a third hypothesis, Ornithischia is positioned as the sister-taxon to the ‘other neotheropods’ not contained in the coelophysid clade.

Another hypothesis proposes that Ornithischia forms the sister-taxon of Averostra. Like Ornithischia, Averostra is only known from the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, and both share a number of anatomical features, such as fusion of the sacral neural. Another anatomical traits that could unite such a group include the possession of six or more sacral vertebrae; and the fusion of the sacral neural spines into a broad and continuous sheet, as in early ornithischians like Lesothosaurus diagnosticus and tetanuran theropods like Megalosaurus bucklandii. It’s worth mentioning the fact the earliest known unambiguous members of both Ornithischia and Averostra, are found in the same formation in South America: Laquintasaura venezuelae and Tachiraptor admirabilis.

Laquintasaura venezuelae gen. et sp. nov (From Barret et al., 2014)

 

It was suggested (Baron and Barrett 2017) that Chilesaurus diegosaurezi from the Late Jurassic, might represent the earliest diverging member of Ornithischia. Chilesaurus shows several characters typical of ornithischians. The features include a premaxilla with an edentulous anterior region;  loss of recurvature in maxillary and dentary teeth; a postacetabular process that is 25–35% of the total anteroposterior length of the ilium; possession of a retroverted pubis; a pubis with a rod-like pubic shaft; a pubic symphysis that is restricted to the distal end of the pubis; and a femur that is straightened in anterior view. The unique combination of ‘primitive’ and ‘derived’ characters for Chilesaurus has the potential to illuminate the order in which traditional ornithischian synapomorphies were acquired.

The Phytodinosauria hypothesis suggest that Ornithischia is nested among the taxa traditionally termed as sauropodomorphs could also offer a solution to the problem of the lack of unambiguous ornithischians in the Carnian and Late Triassic in general.

 

References:

Baron, M. G. (2017): Pisanosaurus mertii and the Triassic ornithischian crisis: could phylogeny offer a solution?, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2017.1410705

Agnolín FL, Rozadilla S. (2017): Phylogenetic reassessment of Pisanosaurus mertii Casamiquela, 1967, a basal dinosauriform from the Late Triassic of Argentina, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2017.1352623

Baron M. G, Barrett P. M. 2017, A dinosaur missing-link? Chilesaurus and the early evolution of ornithischian dinosaurs. Biol. Lett. 13: 20170220. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2017.0220

Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution.  Nature 543, 501–506  (2017).  doi:10.1038/nature21700

Barrett, Paul M.; Butler, Richard J.; Mundil, Roland; Scheyer, Torsten M.; Irmis, Randall B.; Sánchez-Villagra, Marcelo R. (2014). A palaeoequatorial ornithischian and new constraints on early dinosaur diversification, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1147

Max C. Langer, Martín D. Ezcurra, Oliver W. M. Rauhut, Michael J. Benton, Fabien Knoll, Blair W. McPhee, Fernando E. Novas, Diego Pol & Stephen L. Brusatte, Untangling the dinosaur family tree, Nature 551 (2017) doi; oi:10.1038/nature24012

Padian K. Dividing the dinosaurs. Nature 543, 494–495 (2017) doi:10.1038/543494a

 

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Forelimb posture in Chilesaurus diegosuarezi.

 

Chilesaurus holotype cast (MACN. From Wikipedia Commons. Author: Evelyn D’Esposito)

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi is a bizarre tetanuran from the Upper Jurassic of southern Chile. Holotype specimen (SNGM-1935) consists of a nearly complete, articulated skeleton, approximately 1.6 m long. Four other partial skeletons (specimens SNGM-1936, SNGM-1937, SNGM-1938, SNGM-1888) were collected in the lower beds of Toqui Formation. For a basal tetanuran, Chilesaurus possesses a number of surprisingly plesiomorphic traits on the hindlimbs, especially in the ankle and foot, which resemble basal sauropodomorphs.

All the preserved specimens of Chilesaurus show ventrally flexed arms with the hands oriented backwards, an arrangement that closely resembles the resting posture similar described in Mei long, Sinornithoides youngi, and Albinykus baatar. However, the hindlimbs of Chilesaurus are posteriorly extended, rather than ventrally flexed. So it seems that individuals of Chilesaurus were buried quickly and fossilized almost in life position during passive activity (e.g. feeding, resting).

Cast of SNGM-1937 specimen of Chilesaurus diegosuarezi in dorsal (1), 471 lateral (2), and anterolateral view (3).

Cast of SNGM-1937 specimen of Chilesaurus diegosuarezi in dorsal (1), 471 lateral (2), and anterolateral view (3). Scale: 20 mm.

The specimen SNGM-1937 shows an angular relation in the wrist that resembles that in Deinonychus. In fact, several coelurosaurs have the same resting position as the forelimbs of Chilesaurus, with the humerus and radius-ulna in perpendicular relation or elbow flexed in an acute angle, hands under the radius-ulna, and palmar surface posterodorsal and dorsomedial oriented with respect to the main body axis. The resting posture of the forelimbs has been studied in theropod species, in relation to the acquisition of flight. It was suggested that the presence of the forelimb folded structure in advanced theropods are related with soft structures, as patagial skin and muscles, present in several maniraptoran dinosaurs.

The cojoined flexion of wrist and elbow in living birds is mainly conducted by the action of a large number of tendons located within the propatagium. Although the existence of propatagium was considered as unique to modern birds, it have also been described for coelurosaurs and Pterosauria. The preserve of a flexed forearm in Chilesaurus, may be also regarded as an indirect indicative of the presence of propatagium in this taxon.

 

References:

Nicolás R. Chimento, Federico L. Agnolin, Fernando E. Novas, Martín D. Ezcurra, Leonardo Salgado, Marcelo P. Isasi, Manuel Suárez, Rita De La Cruz, David Rubilar-Rogers & Alexander O. Vargas (2017) Forelimb posture in Chilesaurus diegosuarezi (Dinosauria, Theropoda) and its behavioral and phylogenetic implications. Ameghiniana (advance online publication) doi: 10.5710/AMGH.11.06.2017.3088

Novas, F.E., Salgado, L., Suarez, M., Agnolín, F.L., Ezcurra, M.D., Chimento, N.R., de la Cruz, R., Isasi, M.P., Vargas, A.O., and Rubilar-Rogers, D. 2015. An enigmatic plant-eating theropod from the Late Jurassic period of Chile. Nature 522: 331-334. doi:10.1038/nature14307