The realm of the Tyrant

Close up of “Sue” at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL, 2009 (From Wikimedia Commons)

After the extinction of many carnivorous crurotarsan lineages (phytosaurs, ornithosuchids, and rauisuchians) at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, theropod dinosaurs became the primary large-bodied flesh-eaters in terrestrial ecosystems. The group reached a great taxonomic and morphological diversity during the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous. Some major groups include Ceratosauria, Megalosauroidea, Spinosauridae; Carnosauria, and Coelurosauria. In the last decades, the study of Gondwanan non-avian theropods has been highly prolific, showing that the group reached a great taxonomic and morphological diversity comparable to that of Laurasia. Notwithstanding, there is a qualitative difference between Jurassic and Early Cretaceous assemblages relative to the latest Cretaceous (Campano-Maastrichtian) assemblages with abelisaurids dominating Gondwanan continents, and tyrannosaurids ruling Asiamerican ecosystems. 

Tyrannosaurus rex, the most iconic dinosaur of all time, and its closest relatives known as tyrannosaurids, comprise the clade Tyrannosauroidea, a relatively derived group of theropod dinosaurs, more closely related to birds than to other large theropods such as allosauroids and spinosaurids. The clade originated in the Middle Jurassic, approximately 165 million years ago, and was a dominant component of the dinosaur faunas of the American West shortly after the emplacement of the Western Interior Seaway (about 99.5 Mya). Over the past 20 years, new discoveries from Russia, Mongolia and China helped to build the Tyranosaurs family tree.

Skulls of the basal tyrannosauroids Guanlong (A), Dilong (B); Skulls of juvenile (C) and adult (D)Tyrannosaurus. (Adapted from Brusatte et. al., 2010)

All large-bodied carnivorous theropod dinosaurs passed through a wide range of body sizes. Therefore, the ecological niche of any given individual shifted throughout its lifetime. From the Jurassic through the early Late Cretaceous, this transformation occurred in the context of ecosystems in which the juveniles and subadults potentially competed with other theropod species with medium adult body sizes. But sometime after the Turonian something changed.

A new study by Thomas Holtz, a principal lecturer in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology, surveyed the record of 60 dinosaur communities from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, revealing a drop-off in diversity of medium-sized predator species (50–1000 kg) in communities dominated by tyrannosaurs. On the other hand, the study also showed that the diversity of prey species did not decline. The proposed explanation for this phenomenon is the “tyrannosaurid niche assimilation hypothesis”. In this scheme, juvenile and subadult members of Tyrannosauridae were the functional equivalent of earlier middle-sized theropod carnivores. This absence of other potential mid-sized competitors in Campano-Maastrichtian Asiamerica could be a factor in some evolutionary transformations in Tyrannosauridae such as bite force and agility.

 

References:

Thomas R. Holtz, Theropod guild structure and the tyrannosaurid niche assimilation hypothesis: implications for predatory dinosaur macroecology and ontogeny in later Late Cretaceous Asiamerica, Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1139/cjes-2020-0174

Brusatte SL, Norell MA, Carr TD, Erickson GM, Hutchinson JR, et al. (2010) Tyrannosaur paleobiology: new research on ancient exemplar organisms. Science 329: 1481–1485. doi: 10.1126/science.1193304

Zanno, L., Makovicky, P. Neovenatorid theropods are apex predators in the Late Cretaceous of North America. Nat Commun 4, 2827 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3827

 

Meet Niebla antiqua

Silhouette of Niebla antiqua showing the preserved bones in white. Scale bar: 0.5 meters. From Aranciaga et al., 2020.

The Abelisauridae represents the best-known carnivorous dinosaur group from Gondwana. Their fossil remains have been recovered in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Madagascar, India, and France. The group was erected by Jose Bonaparte with the description of  Abelisaurus Comahuensis. These theropods exhibit spectacular cranial ornamentation in the form of horns and spikes and strongly reduced forelimbs and hands. The Argentinean record of abelisauroid theropods begins in the Middle Jurassic (Eoabelisaurus mefi) and spans most of the Late Cretaceous. The clade includes Carnotaurus sastrei, Abelisaurus comahuensis, Aucasaurus garridoi, Ekrixinatosaurus novasi, Skorpiovenator bustingorryi, Tralkasaurus cuyi and Viavenator exxoni.  Niebla antiqua, a new specimen from the Late Cretaceous of Río Negro province, is an important addition to the knowledge of abelisaurid diversity.

Niebla antiqua is much smaller than other abelisaurids like Carnotaurus and Abelisaurus, with only 4–4.5 metres (13–15 ft) long. It was found near Matadero Hill, located within the Arriagada Farm, at 70 km south from General Roca city, Río Negro province, Argentina. The generic name derived from the Spanish word for “mist”, referring to the foggy days during the excavation of the specimen. The specific name “antiqua”, comes from the Latin “old” and makes reference to the age of the specimen.

 

Digital reconstruction of the braincase of Niebla antiqua in right lateral (A), dorsal (B), and posterior (C) views. From Aranciaga et al., 2020

Digital reconstruction of the braincase of Niebla antiqua in right lateral (A), dorsal (B), and posterior (C) views. From Aranciaga et al., 2020

 

The holotype (MPCN-PV-796) is represented by a nearly complete braincase, incomplete left dentary, isolated teeth, relatively complete scapulocoracoid, dorsal ribs and incomplete vertebrae. The braincase of Niebla is exquisitely preserved, allowing the recognition of most cranial nerves and vascular foramina. The cranial endocast has a total length of 144 mm and has an approximate volume of 64.2 cm3. The scapulocoracoid is notably similar to that of Carnotaurus with a narrow and elongate scapular blade, a glenoid surface posteriorly oriented, and a dorsoventrally expanded and wide coraco-scapular plate. Paleohistological analysis indicates that despite of its relatively small size, the holotypic specimen represents a somatically mature individual.

 

References:

Aranciaga Rolando, M., Cerroni, M. A., Garcia Marsà, J. A., Agnolín, F. l., Motta, M. J., Rozadilla, S., Brisson Eglí, Federico., Novas, F. E. (2020). A new medium-sized abelisaurid (Theropoda, Dinosauria) from the late cretaceous (Maastrichtian) Allen Formation of Northern Patagonia, Argentina. Journal of South American Earth Sciences, 102915. doi:10.1016/j.jsames.2020.102915

Introducing Oksoko avarsan

Oviraptorosaurs are a well-defined group of coelurosaurian dinosaurs characterized by short, deep skulls with toothless jaws, pneumatized caudal vertebrae, anteriorly concave pubic shafts, and posteriorly curved ischia. The most basal forms were small, similar to a chicken or a turkey, and like extant birds, they had pennaceous feathers. Their fossil record span much of the Cretaceous of Asia and North America. The most famous dinosaur of this group, Oviraptor, was discovered in 1923 by Roy Chapman Andrews in Mongolia, associated with a nest of what was thought to be Protoceratops eggs. The misconception persisted until 1990s when it was revealed that the eggs actually belonged to Oviraptor, not Protoceratops. Since then, more skeletons of Oviraptor and other oviraptorids like Citipati and Nemegtomaia have been found brooding over their eggs.

The Nemegt Basin in the Gobi Desert holds an extraordinary record of members of all three Late Cretaceous families of oviraptorosaurs: avimimids, caenagnathids,and oviraptorids. Oksoko avarsan is a newly described small oviraptorosaur, with a large, toothless beak and only two fingers on each forearm. The generic name is derived from the word Oksoko, one of the names of the triple-headed eagle in Altaic mythology. The specific name is derived from the Mongolian word avarsan, meaning rescued, because the holotype was rescued from poachers and smugglers in 2006.

The skull of Oksoko avarsan in lateral view. From Funston et al., 2020.

Preserved in an assemblage of four individuals, the holotype, MPC-D 102/110.a, is a nearly complete juvenile skeleton missing only the distal half of the tail. The excellent preservation of this assemblage provides strong evidence of gregarious behaviour.

The new taxon exhibits the following features: a dome-shaped cranial crest composed of the nasals and frontals, with a small contribution from the posteroventrally inclined parietals, nasal recesses housed in a depression; postorbital with dorsally directed frontal process; cervical vertebrae with large epipophyses; accessory ridge of brevis fossa of ilium, anteriorly curving pubis; and large proximodorsal process of distal tarsal IV. But the most striking feature of Oksoko is the functionally didactyl manus. This is the first evidence of digit loss in oviraptors. Maximum-likelihood reconstruction reveals a trend towards forelimb and digit reduction in oviraptorosaurs. This variation in forelimb length and morphology variation may have facilitated the radiation of the clade in the Late Cretaceous.

 

 

References:

Gregory F. Funston; Tsogtbaatar Chinzorig; Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar; Yoshitsugu Kobayashi; Corwin Sullivan; Philip J. Currie (2020). «A new two-fingered dinosaur sheds light on the radiation of Oviraptorosauria». Royal Society Open Science, doi:10.1098/rsos.201184

Funston, G. F., Mendonca, S. E., Currie, P. J., & Barsbold, R. (2018). Oviraptorosaur anatomy, diversity and ecology in the Nemegt Basin. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 494, 101–120. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2

Introducing Dineobellator notohesperus

Life reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus. Artwork by Sergey Krasovskiy

 

The iconic Velociraptor mongoliensis, described by Osborn in 1924, belongs to the Dromaeosauridae, a family of highly derived small to mid-sized theropod dinosaurs closely related to birds. Their fossils have been found in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Antarctica. They first appeared in the mid-Jurassic Period, but their fossil record in North America is very poor near the time of their extinction prior to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. The group is characterized by the presence of long, three-fingered forelimbs that ended in sharp, trenchant claws and a tail stiffened by the elongated prezygapophyses.

The description of Dineobellator notohesperus, a new specimen discovered in 2008 in New Mexico, offers a glimpse into the biodiversity of Dromaeosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous. The generic name is derived from the Navajo word Diné, in reference to the people of the Navajo Nation, and the Latin suffix bellator, meaning warrior. The specific name is derived from the Greek word noto, meaning southern, or south; and the Greek word hesper, meaning western.

 

Skeletal reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus. From Jasinski et al., 2020

 

The holotype (SMP VP-2430), similar in size to Velociraptor and Saurornitholestes, includes elements of the skull, axial, and appendicular skeleton. The nearly complete right humerus measures 185.78 mm, with an estimated total length of 215 mm. The presence of quill knobs in Dineobellator provides further evidence for feathers throughout Dromaeosauridae. This new specimen co-existed with numerous other theropods, including caenagnathids, ornithomimids, troodontids, and tyrannosaurids.

Dineobellator exhibits some features in the forelimbs that suggest greater strength capabilities in flexion, in conjunction with a relatively tighter grip strength in the manual claws, while the possession of opisthocoelous proximal caudal vertebrae may have increased the agility of Dineobellator and thus may have implications for its predatory behavior, particularly with respect to the pursuit of prey.

 

References:

Jasinski, S.E., Sullivan, R.M. & Dodson, P. New Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur (Theropoda, Dromaeosauridae) from New Mexico and Biodiversity of Dromaeosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous. Sci Rep 10, 5105 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61480-7

Senter, P., Kirkland, J. I., DeBlieux, D. D., Madsen, S. & Toth, N. New dromaeosaurids (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of Utah, and the evolution of the dromaeosaurid tail. PLoS One 7, e36790 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036790

Osborn, Henry F. (1924a). “Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia”. American Museum Novitates. 144: 1–12. http://hdl.handle.net/2246/3223

 

Introducing Asteriornis maastrichtensis

 

Three-dimensional image of the skull of Asteriornis maastrichtensis.
Image credit: Daniel J. Field, University of Cambridge

The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period. After the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, the Neoaves, the most diverse avian clade, suffered a rapid global expansion and radiation. A genome-scale molecular phylogeny indicates that nearly all modern ordinal lineages were formed within 15 million years after the extinction, suggesting a particularly rapid period of both genetic evolution and the formation of new species. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates. The description of a new neornithine from the Late Cretaceous of Belgium shed new light on the evolution of birds.

Asteriornis maastrichtensis is a small member of the clade Pangalloanserae, the group that includes Galliformes and Anseriformes, with an estimated body weight of about 400 grams. The holotype (NHMM, 2013 008) includes a nearly complete, articulated skull with mandibles, and associated postcranial remains preserved in four blocks. The new specimen, dated between 66.8 and 66.7 million years ago, was collected in 2000 by Maarten van Dinther. The generic name is derived from the name of the Asteria, the Greek goddess of falling stars, and the Greek word ornis for bird. The specific name maastrichtensis honors the provenance of the holotype, the Maastricht Formation (the type locality of the Late Cretaceous Maastrichtian stage).

Artist’s reconstruction of Asteriornis maastrichtensis.
Illustration: Phillip Krzeminski

Asteriornis exhibits caudally pointed nasals that overlie the frontals and meet at the midline of the skull, and a slightly rounded, unhooked tip of the premaxilla. The new specimen reveals a previously undocumented combination of ‘galliform’ and ‘anseriform’ features that emphasizes the modular nature of the skull and bill of crown birds. The narrow and elongate hindlimbs and provenance from nearshore marine sediments suggest that Asteriornis might have had a shorebird-like ecology.

 

References:

Field, D.J., Benito, J., Chen, A. et al. Late Cretaceous neornithine from Europe illuminates the origins of crown birds. Nature 579, 397–401 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2096-0

Introducing Akainacephalus johnsoni

Skeletal reconstructions of Akainacephalus johnsoni. From Wiersma and Irmis, 2018

The Ankylosauria is a group of herbivorous, quadrupedal, armoured dinosaurs subdivided in two major clades, the Ankylosauridae and the Nodosauridae. The group is predominantly recorded from the Late Cretaceous (Turonian—late Maastrichtian) of Asia and the last Cretaceous (early Campanian—late Maastrichtian) of western North America (Laramidia). Ankylosauridae were present primarily in Asia and North America, and the most derived members of this clade are characterized by shortened skulls, pyramidal squamosal horns, and tail clubs.

Akainacephalus johnsoni, a new genus and species of an ankylosaurid dinosaur from the upper Campanian Kaiparowits Formation of southern Utah, represents the most complete ankylosaurid specimen from southern Laramidia to date, and reveals new details about the diversity and evolution of this clade. The genus name is derived from the Greek akaina, meaning “thorn” or “spine,” referring to the thorn-like cranial caputegulae of the holotype; and “cephalus,” the Greek meaning for head. The specific epithet honors Randy Johnson, volunteer preparator at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Skull of Akainacephalus johnsoni. From Wiersma and Irmis, 2018

The holotype (UMNH VP 20202) is a partial skeleton comprising a complete skull, both mandibles, predentary, four dorsal, four dorsosacral, three sacral, one caudosacral, and eight caudal vertebrae, dorsal ribs, a complete tail club, both scapulae, left coracoid, right humerus, right ulna, partial left ilium, left femur, left tibia, left fibula, phalanx, two partial cervical osteoderm half rings, and 17 dorsal and lateral osteoderms of various sizes and morphologies.

The most striking feature of Akainacephalus johnsoni is the skull ornamentation comprising several symmetrical rows of small pyramidal and conical caputegulae along the dorsolateral surface of the skull. The postorbital horns are dorsoventrally tall, backswept, and project laterally in dorsal view. The quadratojugal horns display an  asymmetrical triangular morphology with a vertically positioned apex. Only a partial squamosal horn is preserved, but is largely broken.

Life reconstruction of Akainacephalus johnsoni (Image credit: Andrey Atuchin and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science)

The unique anatomical features of Akainacephalus johnsoni indicate a close taxonomic relationship with Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis, that clearly distinguish them from other Late Cretaceous Laramidian (although both taxa are temporally separated by nearly three million years). Because both taxa a more closely related to Asian ankylosaurids, the geographic distribution of Late Cretaceous ankylosaurids throughout the Western Interior could be the result of several geologically brief intervals of lowered sea level that allowed Asian ankylosaurid dinosaurs to immigrate to North America several times during the Late Cretaceous. The dispersal of ankylosaurids into Laramidia is coeval with the dispersal of other dinosaur clades, like tyrannosaurids and ceratopsians. The climate gradients and the fluctuations in sea level, may have helped reinforced Campanian provincialism.

 

References:

Wiersma JP, Irmis RB. (2018) A new southern Laramidian ankylosaurid, Akainacephalus johnsoni gen. et sp. nov., from the upper Campanian Kaiparowits Formation of southern Utah, USA. PeerJ 6:e5016 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5016

Arbour, V. M.; Currie, P. J. (2015). “Systematics, phylogeny and palaeobiogeography of the ankylosaurid dinosaurs”. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology: 1–60. doi: 10.1080/14772019.2015.1059985

The bizarre Halszkaraptor escuilliei

H. escuilliei MPC D-102/109. From Cau et al., 2017.

Maniraptoran lineages evolved novel ecomorphologies during the Cretaceous period, including active flight, gigantism, cursoriality and herbivory. This group share the following characteristics: large brain but a reduced skull in comparison to their body size, beaks, and smaller teeth. Now, a well-preserved maniraptoran from Mongolia, 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 escuilliei gen. et sp. nov., adds an amphibious ecomorphology to those evolved by maniraptorans.

The holotype, MPC (Institute of Paleontology and Geology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia) D-102/109, is an articulated and almost complete skeleton preserved three-dimensionally. The generic name, honours Halszka Osmólska (1930–2008) for her contributions to theropod palaeontology. The species name, ‘escuilliei’ refers to François Escuillié, who returned the holotype to Mongolia.

Reconstruction of Halszkaraptor escuilliei. Photograph: Lukas Panzarin/Andrea Cau

Halszkaraptor is related to other enigmatic Late Cretaceous maniraptorans from Mongolia in a novel clade at the root of Dromaeosauridae. It was the size of a mallard. Originally poached from Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, the fossil was in private collections in Japan and England for an unknown amount of time, and later it  was transferred to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). Thanks to a cooperation agreement between the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science of Mongolia, the Belgian Science Policy Office and the RBINS, the specimen returned to the Institute of Paleontology and Geology, Mongolian Academy of Science.

The skeleton is almost complete. The skull is lightly built, and is still articulated with the first cervical vertebra. The preorbital region forms 60% of basicranial length, and each premaxilla is elongate, bearing eleven teeth, the highest number among dinosaurs. The presacral vertebrae include 10 cervicals and 12 dorsals. The neck forms 50% of snout–sacrum length.

Skull of H. escuilliei. From Cau et al., 2017

The forelimb is relatively shorter than in most dromaeosaurids. The ulna is flattened and possesses an acute posterior margin. The hand has a morphology that is unique among theropods, with a progressive elongation of the lateral fingers, with the third being the longest and most robust. The 76 mm long femur has a robust greater trochanter. The metatarsus lacks cursorial adaptations and measures 80% of femoral length. The feet are complete and articulated, although some elements are poorly visible.

Based on the neck hyperelongation for food procurement, the forelimb proportions that may support a swimming function, and postural adaptations convergent with short-tailed birds, Halszkaraptor may represent the first case among non-avian dinosaurs of a double locomotory module.

References:

Cau, A.; Beyrand, V.; Voeten, D.; Fernandez, V.; Tafforeau, P.; Stein, K.; Barsbold, R.; Tsogtbaatar, K.; Currie, P.; Godrfroit, P.; “Synchrotron scanning reveals amphibious ecomorphology in a new clade of bird-like dinosaurs”. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature2467

A Brief Introduction to the Osteology of Viavenator exxoni

Viavenator exxoni, Museo Municipal Argentino Urquiza

The Abelisauridae is the best-known carnivorous dinosaur group from Gondwana. Their fossil remains have been recovered in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Niger, Libya, Madagascar, India, and France. These theropods exhibit spectacular cranial ornamentation in the form of horns and spikes and strongly reduced forelimbs and hands. The group was erected by Jose Bonaparte with the description of  Abelisaurus comahuensis, and includes: Carnotaurus sastrei, Aucasaurus garridoi, Ekrixinatosaurus novasi, Skorpiovenator bustingorryi, Eoabelisaurus and Viavenator exxoni

The holotype of Viavenator exxoni (MAU-Pv-LI-530) was found in the outcrops of the Bajo de la Carpa Formation (Santonian, Upper Cretaceous), northwestern Patagonia, Argentina. Viavenator series of autapomorphies are: transversely compressed parietal depressions on both sides of the supraoccipital crest; ventral edges of the paraoccipital processes located above the level of the dorsal edge of the occipital condyle; basioccipital-opisthotic complex about two and a half times the width and almost twice the height of the occipital condyle, in posterior view; well-developed crest below the occipital condyle; deeply excavated and sub-circular basisphenoidal recess; basipterygoid processes horizontally placed with respect to the cranial roof and located slightly dorsally to the basal tubera; mid and posterior cervical centra with slightly convex lateral and ventral surfaces; presence of an interspinous accessory articular system in middle and posterior dorsal vertebrae; presence of a pair of pneumatic foramina within the prespinal fossa in anterior caudal vertebrae; distal end of the scapular blade posteriorly curved.

Figure 1. Rendering of the type braincase of Viavenator exxoni (MAU-Pv-LI-530) in dorsal (A,B), and right lateral (C,D) view. Adapted from Carabajal y Filippi, 2017.

Viavenator presents highly-derived postcranial characters, and a relatively plesiomorphic skull in comparison with Carnotaurus and Aucasaurus. Cranial elements of this specimen include the complete neurocranium: frontals, parietals, sphenethmoids, orbitosphenoids, laterosphenoids, prootics, opisthotics, supraoccipital, exoccipitals, basioccipital, parasphenoids and basisphenoids. The plesiomorphic traits of the skull of Viavenator are mainly related with the anatomy of frontals, wich lack osseous prominences such as domes or horns. The dorsal surface of the frontals exhibits an ornamentation that consists of pits and sinuous furrows and ridges, although it is not well-preserved. The  exoccipitals form the lateral and possibly the laterodorsal margins of the foramen magnum, as apparently occurs in Carnotaurus. 

Vertebrae of Viavenator exxoni. Scale bar: 5 cm. From Filippi et al., 2017),

The postcranial skeleton of Viavenator is represented by eight cervical vertebrae (the atlas; seven dorsal vertebrate, four of them articulated; twelve caudal vertebrae); ribs; gastralias; one chevron; scapulocoracoid; ischium foot; and fibulae. The atlas is similar to that of Carnotaurus, though less robust and anteroposteriorly shorter; and there  are not observed prezygapophyseal facets in the neurapophyses, so it is inferred that the proatlas was absent, as also occurs in Carnotaurus and Majungasaurus. The shape of the epipophyses of the cervical region, which are
characterized by anterior and posterior projections, is shared by Viavenator and Carnotaurus, but it is not present in pre-Santonian forms such as Ilokelesia and Skorpiovenator. The derived vertebral characters of Viavenator are linked with an increase in the structural rigidity of the vertebral column, and with an increase in the cursorial abilities of these abelisaurids. This combination of plesiomorphic and derived traits suggests that Viavenator is a transitional form.

 

References:

Filippi, L.S., Méndez, A.H., Gianechini, F.A., Juárez Valieri, Rubé.D., Garrido, A.C., Osteology of Viavenator exxoni (Abelisauridae; Furileusauria) from the Bajo de la Carpa Formation, NW Patagonia, Argentina, Cretaceous Research (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.cretres.2017.07.019.

Leonardo S. Filippi, Ariel H. Méndez, Rubén D. Juárez Valieri and Alberto C. Garrido (2016). «A new brachyrostran with hypertrophied axial structures reveals an unexpected radiation of latest Cretaceous abelisaurids». Cretaceous Research 61: 209-219. doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2015.12.018

Paulina-Carabajal, A., Filippi, L., Neuroanatomy of the abelisaurid theropod Viavenator: The most complete reconstruction of a cranial endocast and inner ear for a South American representative of the clade, Cretaceous Research (2017), doi: 10.1016/j.cretres.2017.06.013

 

Osteohistological analysis of Vegavis iaai

Vegavis iaai by Gabriel Lio. / Photo: CONICET

The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates. Vegavis iaai is the first unquestionable neornithine bird from the Cretaceous and is known by the holotype and specimen MACN-PV 19.748. The holotype specimen MLP 93-I-3-1 (Museo de La Plata, Argentina) from Vega Island, western Antarctica, was discovered in 1992 by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, but was only described as a new species in 2005 (Clarke et al., 2005). Polarornis gregrorii, from the López de Bertodano Formation of Seymour Island, Antarctica, and Vegavis form a monophyletic basal clade of foot-propelled anseriform birds (Agnolín 2016), a group that includes ducks, geese and swans.

Osteohistological analysis of the femur and humerus of V. iaai. shows a highly vascularized fibrolamellar matrix lacking lines of arrested growths, features widespread among modern birds. The femur has some secondary osteons, and shows several porosities, one especially large, posterior to the medullar cavity. The humerus exhibits a predominant fibrolamellar matrix, but in a portion of the anterior and medial sides of the shaft there are a few secondary osteons, some of them connected with Volkman’s canals, and near to these canals, there are a compact coarse cancellous bone (CCCB) with trabeculae. This tissue disposition and morphology suggests that Vegavis had remarkably high growth rates.

Detail of the humerus of Vegavis iaai (MACN-PV 19.748) in polarised light. Scale = 1 mm. (From G. Marsà et al., 2017)

Many studies on avian microanatomy have established a relationship between high bone compactness (i.e., considerable degree of osteosclerosis) and diving behavior. Differences in the degree of osteosclerosis could be tentatively related to variations in diving behaviour. Vegavis was a diver, characterised by a medium level of limb osteosclerosis. Polarornis, with more massive bones, was possibly adapted to deeper and more prolonged diving than Vegavis, as occurs in modern penguins.

The value of Relative Bone Thickness (RBT) in Vegavis is comparable with two genera of extant foot-propelled diving ducks. A high RBT is related with increased stiffening the forelimb, regardless of body mass or depth of diving. Flightless Pan-Alcidae and penguins, have a very rigid, flipper-like wings suggesting that decreased wing flexion and increased cortical thickness of forelimbs are somehow correlated. Based on  the values of RBT present in both Vegavis and Polarornis is possible to infer that these taxa were foot-propelled birds.

References:

Jordi Alexis Garcia Marsà, Federico L. Agnolín & Fernando Novas (2017): Bone microstructure of Vegavis iaai (Aves, Anseriformes) from the Upper Cretaceous of Vega Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2017.1348503

Agnolín FL. 2016. A brief history of South American birds. Contribuciones del MACN 6:157–172

Clarke, J. A., C. P. Tambussi, J. I. Noriega, G. M. Erickson, and R. A. Ketcham. 2005. Definitive fossil evidence for the extant avian radiation in the Cretaceous. Nature 433:305-308. DOI: 10.1038/nature03150

Introducing Daspletosaurus horneri

D. horneri holotype skull (MOR 590, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, USA)

Tyrannosaurus rex, the most iconic dinosaur of all time, and its closest relatives known as tyrannosaurids, comprise the clade Tyrannosauroidea, a relatively derived group of theropod dinosaurs, more closely related to birds than to other large theropods such as allosauroids and spinosaurids. All tyrannosaurs were bipedal predators characterized by premaxillary teeth with a D-shaped cross section, fused nasals, extreme pneumaticity in the skull roof and lower jaws, a pronounced muscle attachment ridge on the ilium, and an elevated femoral head. The clade was a dominant component of the dinosaur faunas of the American West shortly after the emplacement of the Western Interior Seaway (about 99.5 Mya).

Daspletosaurus horneri, a new species of tyrannosaurid from the upper Two Medicine Formation of Montana, is the sister species of Daspletosaurus torosus. The new taxon was named in honor of Jack Horner, and inhabited northern Laramidia (what is now southern Alberta and northern Montana) about 75 million years ago. Paleontologist Vickie R. Clouse discovered the first specimen in 1989 and more individuals were uncovered in the following decades. The so-called Two Medicine tyrannosaurinemade its first appearance in a study co-written by Jack Horner in 1992, about the phyletic evolution in four lineages of dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurs, from the Late Cretaceous of the American West.

Phylogenetic relationships of tyrannosaurines calibrated to geological time (From Carr et al., 2017)

The holotype of Daspletosaurus horneri (MOR 590) consists of a complete skull, partial pectoral limb, and nearly complete hindlimb; and is estimated to be ~9.0 m in total length and 2.2 m tall.  D. horneri has taller skull than  D. torosus. Because of the excellent quality of preservation of these fossils it was possible to study the type of soft tissue that covered the face (premaxilla, maxilla, nasal, lacrimal, jugal, postorbital, squamosal, dentary). The study revealed that many of the tyrannosaur’s skull features are identical to those of crocodilians. Given the skeletal similarities with crocodylians, tyrannosaurids had a highly sensitive facial tactile system that functioned in prey capture, and object identification and manipulation, for detecting the optimal temperature of a nest site, and, in courtship, tyrannosaurids might have rubbed their sensitive faces together as a vital part of pre-copulatory play.

 

References:

Thomas D. Carr, David J. Varricchio, Jayc C. Sedlmayr, Eric M. Roberts, Jason R. Moore. A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 44942
doi:10.1038/srep44942

Horner, J. R., Varricchio, D. J. & Goodwin, M. B. Marine transgressions and the evolution of Cretaceous dinosaurs. Nature 358, 59–61 (1992) doi:10.1038/358059a0