Welcome to the blog of the Mesozoic vertebrates research group of the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie

Monday 5 November 2012

Ever seen anything like this? Eh, no...

That's the (inofficial) story behind the name of our recently described new rhynchocephalian Oenosaurus muehlheimensis. When the remains of this animal, which only consist of a crushed skull that was exposed in palatal view, and both mandibles, were found at the Schaudiberg quarry at Mühlheim, the quarry owners and the scientists working with them were first at a loss as to what animal this was. Anybody whom they showed it to had ever seen anything like that before, and my first guess, when shown photos of the skull in palatal view, was that it might be a chimeran chondrichthyan. Later we wondered whether it might represent a late surviving rhynchosaur, with the typical maxillary tooth battery that these animals possess. Only when I examined the mandibles, finally recognition dawned: these elements, with their high coronoid processes, enlarged mandibular foramen and convex articular surface, clearly indicated that we were dealing with a sphenodontian (=rhynchocephalian).
Skull of Oenosaurus in ventral view, showing the formidable tooth plates.

Preparation and careful examination and comparison of the skull confirmed this identification. Oenosaurus really represented a rhynchocephalian, though with a dentition as it has never been described before in a tetrapod. The dentition consists of massive tooth plates, which, under closer inspection, seem to be made up of hundreds or thousands of fused individual teeth, with small internal cavities and concentric arrangements of dentine layers around them. That's what it looked like when examining the tooth plates under the microscope, and our first interpretation was that these plates indeed represented simply fused individual teeth, possibly including several tooth generations, as in the tooth batteries of some ornithischian dinosaurs. Given that rhynchocephalians usually do not show tooth replacement, this would have been weird enough, but then we made a computer tomography of the tooth plates. The results showed no evidence of replacement teeth, but apparently continously growing dentine tubules that were fused into a single structure towards the surface and sometimes even showed branching patterns. A literture survey revealed that similar structures are basically only found in chimeran chondrichthyans and lungfishes, where this tooth tissue is called osteodentine or petrodentine.
Right mandible of Oenosaurus in lateral view.

Rhynchocephalians are an ancient lineage of lepidosaurian reptiles, the group that modern lizards and snakes also belong to. However, in contrast to the latter, which are currently represented by several thousand species, only two species of rhynchocephalians survived to the present day, both in the genus Sphenodon. This genus, commonly named the Tuatara, is currently restricted to s few islands off the coast of New Zealand, where these animals have found their last refuge. Since Sphenodon belongs to such an ancient lineage and also shows some rather primitive looking features, it is often considered a living fossil, and was consequently used frequently in studies relating to allegedly ancestral conditions for modern lizards, also in recent times.
Photo of the rather sympathetic looking Sphenodon, the only recent rhynchocephalian (courtesy Helmut Tischlinger).

However, palaeontological research in recent decades had already shown that many of the alledgedly primitive characters of Sphenodon are actually secondarily derived, and that rhynchocephalians were a diverse and successfull branch of the lepidosaurian tree at least in the early to mid-Mesozoic. Nevertheless, rhynchocephalians kept their status as "evolutionary loosers": since they seemed to have been inferior to lizards in the adaptability, they were doomed to dwindle and almost vanish. Only recently, research by Hugo Reynoso, Sebastian Apesteguía and Marc Jones, among others, has forcefully shown that rhynchocephalians were not only systematically, but also ecologically diverse and highly successful. With its extremely modified tooth plates, indicating a crushing dentition, an adaptation previously unrecorded in rhynchocephalians, Oenosaurus underlines this high evolutionary plasticity of the group and thus seriously calls into question the idea of their inferiority. This is another nice example that judging groups of animals by their recent representatives alone might greatly underestimate their true nature and potential, and that the very concept of a "living fossil" might be seriously flawed. The whole story can, though admittedly always still incomplete, only be told by incorporating the fossil record.

Apesteguia, S. 2007. La evolución de los lepidosaurios. Investigación y Ciencia 367:54-63.
Apesteguia, S., and F. E. Novas. 2003. Large Cretaceous sphenodontian from Patagonia provides insight into lepidosaur evolution in Gondwana. Nature 425:609-612.
Jones, M. E. H. 2008. Skull shape and feeding strategy in Sphenodon and other Rhynchocephalia (Diapsida: Lepidosauria). Journal of Morphology 269:945-966.
Jones, M. E. H. 2009. Dentary tooth shape in Sphenodon and its fossil relatives (Diapsida: Lepidosauria: Rhynchocephalia). Frontiers of  Oral Biology 13:9-15.
Rauhut, O. W. M., Heygn, A. M., López-Arbarello, A. and Hecker, A. 2012. A new rhynchocephalian from the Late Jurassic of Germany with a dentition that is unique amongst tetrapods. PLoS One 7(10): e46839.
Reynoso, V.-H. 1997. A "beaded" sphenodontian (Diapsida: Lepidosauria) from the Early Cretaceous of central Mexico. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17(1):52-59.
Reynoso, V.-H. 2005. Possible evidence of a venom apparatus in a Middle Jurassic sphenodontian from the Huizachal red beds of Tamaulipas, México. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 25(3):646-654.

Communication between scientists: SVP meeting 2012 in Raleigh

The 72nd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was held in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA (October 17 – 20, 2012). More than 1,000 attendees interested in various facets of the discipline of vertebrate paleontology - such as the biology of long-extinct dinosaurs - presented and discussed their latest scientific advances.
For instance, we now have new clues about one of the biggest enigmatic events during evolution of life: the origin of jaws. A recent study shows that the evolutionary change from jawless to jawed vertebrates can be clearly traced by 400 million years old, transitional fossils.

The Mesozoic Vertebrates Group at the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie in Munich, Germany, was involved as well in crucial contributions to diverse aspects of reptilian evolution. Almost all members presented and discussed their recent research results.

We addressed the question of how to explain the diverse neck lengthening in dinosaurs?
Christine Böhmer and colleagues provided a first-time glimpse at genetic expression during the embryonic development of long-extinct fossil dinosaurs in order to understand the evolution of neck length.
A re-evaluation of phytosaurs (extinct crocodile-like reptiles) from Central Europe by Richard Butler and colleagues gave new insights into the ancient ecosystem of these animals.
On the trail of the famous german paleontologist Ernst Stromer. Serjoscha Evers and colleagues reported on an enigmatic theropod dinosaur from northern Africa.
As a result of the work by Martin Ezcurra and colleagues we have new information about the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event (about 200 millon years ago) that had a deep impact on the early evolution of theropod dinosaurs.
Christian Foth and colleagues illustrated their results on the evolutionary history of the Mesozoic flying reptiles, the Pterosauria.
Albert Prieto-Marquez and colleagues talked about potential triggers for the diversity peak of megaherbivore dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous.
Oliver Rauhut and his colleague Diego Pol presented a new theropod dinosaur from Patagonia, Argentina. The skeleton of this huge animal is the most complete tetanuran from the early Middle Jurassic.
Roland Sookias and colleagues talked about trends in tetrapod body size evolution and concluded that biological limits , not environmental limits, become increasingly limiting as larger sizes are reached.

In all, the international meeting was a great success not only concerning the promotion of excellent research by the Mesozoic Vertebrates Group but also in encouraging collarboration with associates from all over the world.