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.



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


Historical perspective on the origin of Dinosauria

Megalosaurus at Crystal Palace Park, London. From Wikimedia Commons.

Megalosaurus at Crystal Palace Park, London. From Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteen 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). This characteristics were more mammalian. He even speculated that dinosaur had four-chambered hearts and warm blood like mammals.

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. Based on these features, Seeley denied the monophyly of dinosaurs.

Seeley’s (1901) diagram of the relationships of Archosauria. From Padian 2013

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.
In 1968, Romer wrote that ‘‘Very probably the saurischians arose in mildly polyphyletic fashion from two or several pseudosuchian forms.’’

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.

Herrerasaurus skull. From Wikimedia Commons.

The discovery of Lagosuchus and Lagerpeton from the Middle Triassic of Argentina (Romer 1971, 1972; Bonaparte 1975) induced a change in the views of dinosaurs origins. Also from South America came a variety of new dinosaurs, including the basal dinosaurs Herrerasaurus and Ischisaurus 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 the a profound shift in thinking on nearly all aspects of dinosaur evolution, biology and ecology. This process was called the dinosaur renaissance.

In 1974 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”.

Gauthier, in 1986, showed that Dinosauria was cladistically monophyletic and that birds were hierarchically included in Saurischia and Theropoda.

A meeting of vertebrate paleontologists (1968). From left to right: Romer, Bonaparte, W. Sill, R. Casamiquela, R. Pascual and O. Reig. (From F. Novas, 2009)

A meeting of vertebrate paleontologists (1968). From left to right: Romer, Bonaparte, W. Sill, R. Casamiquela, R. Pascual and O. Reig. (From F. Novas, 2009)

As pointed out by Steve Brusatte: “The evolutionary radiation of dinosaurs did not follow a simple pattern, but by the Early Jurassic, the Age of Dinosaur dominance was in full swing.”


Padian K 2013. 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