Megalosaurus at Crystal Palace Park, London. From Wikimedia Commons.
In the 19th century, the famous Victorian anatomist Richard Owen diagnosed Dinosauria using three taxa: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, on the basis of three main features: large size and terrestrial habits, upright posture and sacrum with five vertebrae (because the specimens were from all Late Jurassic and Cretaceous, he didn’t know that the first dinosaurs had three or fewer sacrals). These characteristics were more mammalian than reptilian. But new fossil findings from Europe and particularly North America forced to a new interpretation about those gigantic animals.
In 1887, Harry Govier Seeley summarised the works of Cope, Huxley and Marsh who already subdivided the group Dinosauria into various orders and suborders. However, he was the first to subdivide dinosaurs into Saurischians and the Ornithischians, based on the nature of their pelvic bones and joints. He wrote: “The characters on which these animals should be classified are, I submit, those which pervade the several parts of the skeleton, and exhibit some diversity among the associated animal types. The pelvis is perhaps more typical of these animals than any other part of the skeleton and should be a prime element in classification. The presence or absence of the pneumatic condition of the vertebrae is an important structural difference…” Based on these features, Seeley denied the monophyly of dinosaurs.
Seeley’s (1901) diagram of the relationships of Archosauria. From Padian 2013
At the mid 20th century, the consensual views about Dinosauria were: first, the group was not monophyletic; second almost no Triassic ornithischians were recognised, so they were considered derived morphologically, which leads to the third point, the problem of the ‘‘origin of dinosaurs’’ usually was reduced to the problem of the ‘‘origin of Saurischia,’’ because theropods were regarded as the most primitive saurischians. A great influence on the views about the dinosaur origins was Alan Charig. He was Curator of Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds at the British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum, in London for almost thirty years. Charig thought that the first dinosaurs were quadrupedal, not bipedal. He based this on the kinds of animals that he and his colleagues found in the early Triassic localities of eastern and South Africa. He thought that forms such as ‘‘Mandasuchus’’ were related to dinosaurs, but that they had a posture intermediate between a sprawling and upright gait that he called ‘‘semi-improved” or ‘‘semi-erect’’.
Herrerasaurus skull. From Wikimedia Commons.
The discovery of Lagosuchus and Lagerpeton from the Middle Triassic of Argentina induced a change in the views of dinosaurs origins. Also from South America came Herrerasaurus from the Ischigualasto Formation, the basal sauropodomorphs Saturnalia, Panphagia, Chromogisaurus, and the theropods Guibasaurus and Zupaysaurus, but no ornithischians except a possible heterodontosaurid jaw fragment from Patagonia. The 70s marked the beginning of a profound shift in thinking on nearly all aspects of dinosaur evolution, biology and ecology. Robert Bakker and Peter Galton, based on John Ostrom’s vision about Dinosauria, proposed, for perhaps the first time since 1842, that Dinosauria was indeed a monophyletic group and that it should be separated (along with birds) from other reptiles as a distinct ‘‘Class”. In 1986, the palaeontologist Jacques Gauthier showed that dinosaurs form a single group, which collectively has specific diagnostic traits that set them apart from all other animals.
From Baron et al., 2017.
Phylogenetic analyses of early dinosaurs have supported the traditional scheme. But back in March of this year, a paper, authored by Matthew Baron, David Norman and Paul Barrett, challenged this paradigm with a new phylogenetic analysis that places theropods and ornithischians together in a group called Ornithoscelida. The team analysed a wide range of dinosaurs and dinosauromorphs (74 taxa were scored for 457 characters), and they arrived at a dinosaur evolutionary tree containing one main branch that subdivides into the groupings of Ornithischia and Theropoda, and a second main branch that contains the Sauropoda and Herrerasauridae (usually positioned as either basal theropods or basal Saurischia, or outside Dinosauria but close to it). The term Ornithoscelida was coined in 1870 by Thomas Huxley for a group containing the historically recognized groupings of Compsognatha, Iguanodontidae, Megalosauridae and Scelidosauridae. The synapomorphies that support the formation of the clade Ornithoscelida includes: an anterior premaxillary foramen located on the inside of the narial fossa; a sharp longitudinal ridge on the lateral surface of the maxilla; short and deep paroccipital processes; a post-temporal foramen enclosed within the paroccipital process; a straight femur, without a sigmoidal profile; absence of a medioventral acetabular flange; a straight femur, without a sigmoidal profile; and fusion of the distal tarsals to the proximal ends of the metatarsals.
Of course, those results have great implications for the very origin of dinosaurs. Ornithischia don’t begin to diversify substantially until the Early Jurassic. By contrast, the other dinosaurian groups already existed by at least the early Late Triassic. If the impoverished Triassic record of ornithischians reflects a true absence, ornithischians might have evolved from theropods in the Late Triassic (Padian, 2017). The study also suggest that dinosaurs might have originated in the Northern Hemisphere, because most of their basal members, as well as their close relatives, are found there. Furthermore, their analyses places the origin of dinosaurs at the boundary of the Olenekian and Anisian stages (around 247 Ma), slightly earlier than has been suggested previously.
The dinosaur family tree Credit: Max Langer
More recently, an international team of early dinosaur evolution specialists, led by Max Langer, highlighted that the lack of some important taxa (for example, the early thyreophoran Scutellosaurus, the possible theropod Daemonosaurus, and the newly described Ixalerpeton and Buriolestes) may have a substantial effect on character optimizations near the base of the dinosaur tree, and thus on the interrelationships of early dinosaurs. The study did not find strong evidence to discard the traditional Ornithischia–Saurischia division. But they reintroduced a third possibility that was articulated in the 1980s but rarely discussed since: that sauropodomorphs and ornithischians may form their own herbivorous group, separate from the ancestrally meat-eating theropods. The Phytodinosauria hypothesis was coined by Robert T. Bakker in his book The Dinosaur Heresies: “Therefore all the plant-eating dinosaurs of every sort really constitute one, single natural group branching out from one ancestor, a primitive anchisaurlike dinosaur. And a new name is required for this grand family of vegetarians. So I hereby christen them the Phytodinosauria, the “plant dinosaurs”‘
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
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
Padian K. Dividing the dinosaurs. Nature 543, 494–495 (2017) doi:10.1038/543494a
Padian K. The problem of dinosaur origins: integrating three approaches to the rise of Dinosauria. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Available on CJO 2013 doi:10.1017/S1755691013000431 (2013).
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Huxley, T. H. On the classification of the Dinosauria, with observations on the Dinosauria of the Trias. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London 26, 32-51. (1870).