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Concept: Ichthyosaur


Despite their profound adaptations to the aquatic realm and their apparent success throughout the Triassic and the Jurassic, ichthyosaurs became extinct roughly 30 million years before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Current hypotheses for this early demise involve relatively minor biotic events, but are at odds with recent understanding of the ichthyosaur fossil record. Here, we show that ichthyosaurs maintained high but diminishing richness and disparity throughout the Early Cretaceous. The last ichthyosaurs are characterized by reduced rates of origination and phenotypic evolution and their elevated extinction rates correlate with increased environmental volatility. In addition, we find that ichthyosaurs suffered from a profound Early Cenomanian extinction that reduced their ecological diversity, likely contributing to their final extinction at the end of the Cenomanian. Our results support a growing body of evidence revealing that global environmental change resulted in a major, temporally staggered turnover event that profoundly reorganized marine ecosystems during the Cenomanian.

Concepts: Evolution, Ecology, Ecosystem, Extinction, Cretaceous, Dinosaur, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur


Carbonate concretions are known to contain well-preserved fossils and soft tissues. Recently, biomolecules (e.g. cholesterol) and molecular fossils (biomarkers) were also discovered in a 380 million-year-old concretion, revealing their importance in exceptional preservation of biosignatures. Here, we used a range of microanalytical techniques, biomarkers and compound specific isotope analyses to report the presence of red and white blood cell-like structures as well as platelet-like structures, collagen and cholesterol in an ichthyosaur bone encapsulated in a carbonate concretion from the Early Jurassic (~182.7 Ma). The red blood cell-like structures are four to five times smaller than those identified in modern organisms. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis revealed that the red blood cell-like structures are organic in composition. We propose that the small size of the blood cell-like structures results from an evolutionary adaptation to the prolonged low oxygen atmospheric levels prevailing during the 70 Ma when ichthyosaurs thrived. The δ(13)C of the ichthyosaur bone cholesterol indicates that it largely derives from a higher level in the food chain and is consistent with a fish and cephalopod diet. The combined findings above demonstrate that carbonate concretions create isolated environments that promote exceptional preservation of fragile tissues and biomolecules.

Concepts: Electron, Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Evolution, Transmission electron microscopy, Fossil, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur


Mosasaurs (Squamata: Mosasauridae) were a highly diverse, globally distributed group of aquatic lizards in the Late Cretaceous (98-66 million years ago) that exhibited a high degree of adaptation to life in water. To date, despite their rich fossil record, the anatomy of complete mosasaur sclerotic rings, embedded in the sclera of the eyeball, has not been thoroughly investigated. We here describe and compare sclerotic rings of four mosasaur genera, Tylosaurus, Platecarpus, Clidastes, and Mosasaurus, for the first time. Two specimens of Tylosaurus and Platecarpus share an exact scleral ossicle arrangement, excepting the missing portion in the specimen of Platecarpus. Furthermore, the exact arrangement and the total count of 14 ossicles per ring are shared between Tylosaurus and numerous living terrestrial lizard taxa, pertaining to both Iguania and Scleroglossa. In contrast, two species of Mosasaurus share the identical count of 12 ossicles and the arrangement with each other, while no living lizard taxa share exactly the same arrangement. Such a mosaic distribution of these traits both among squamates globally and among obligatorily aquatic mosasaurs specifically suggests that neither the ossicle count nor their arrangement played major roles in the aquatic adaptation in mosasaur eyes. All the mosasaur sclerotic rings examined consistently exhibit aperture eccentricity and the scleral ossicles with gently convex outer side. Hitherto unknown to any squamate taxa, one specimen of Platecarpus unexpectedly shows a raised, concentric band of roughened surface on the inner surface of the sclerotic ring. It is possible that one or both of these latter features may have related to adaptation towards aquatic vision in mosasaurs, but further quantitative study of extant reptilian clades containing both terrestrial and aquatic taxa is critical and necessary in order to understand possible adaptive significances of such osteological features.

Concepts: Eye, Squamata, Cretaceous, Mosasaur, Ichthyosaur, Tylosaurus, Mosasaurus, Mosasaurs


An articulated and partially preserved skeleton of an ichthyosaur was found in the Upper Jurassic (Upper Kimmeridgian) Katrol Formation exposed at a site south of the village Lodai in Kachchh district, Gujarat (western India). Here we present a detailed description and inferred taxonomic relationship of the specimen. The present study revealed that the articulated skeleton belongs to the family Ophthalmosauridae. The new discovery from India further improves the depauperate fossil record of ichthyosaurs from the former Gondwanan continents. Based on the preserved length of the axial skeleton and anterior part of the snout and taking into account the missing parts of the skull and postflexural region, it is suggested that the specimen may represent an adult possibly reaching a length of 5.0-5.5 m. The widespread occurrence of ophthalmosaurids in the Upper Jurassic deposits of western Tethys, Madagascar, South America and India points to possible faunal exchanges between the western Tethys and Gondwanan continents through a southern seaway.

Concepts: South America, Cretaceous, Gondwana, Triassic, Mesozoic, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur, Ophthalmosaurus


Recently it was suggested that the phylogenetic clustering of Mesozoic marine reptile lineages, such as thalattosaurs, the very successful fish-shaped ichthyosaurs and sauropterygians (including plesiosaurs), among others, in a so-called ‘superclade’ is an artefact linked to convergent evolution of morphological characters associated with a shared marine lifestyle. Accordingly, partial ‘un-scoring’ of the problematic phylogenetic characters was proposed. Here we report a new, exceptionally preserved and mostly articulated juvenile skeleton of the diapsid reptile, Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi, a species previously recovered within the marine reptile ‘superclade’, for which we now provide a revised diagnosis. Using micro-computed tomography, we show that besides having a deep skull with a short and broad rostrum, the most outstanding feature of the new specimen is extensive, complex body armour, mostly preserved in situ, along its vertebrae, ribs, and forelimbs, as well as a row of flat, keeled ventrolateral osteoderms associated with the gastralia. As a whole, the anatomical features support an essentially terrestrial lifestyle of the animal. A review of the proposed partial character ‘un-scoring’ using three published data matrices indicate that this approach is flawed and should be avoided, and that within the marine reptile ‘superclade’ E. dalsassoi potentially is the sister taxon of Sauropterygia.

Concepts: Skull, Reptile, Cladistics, Cretaceous, Tuatara, Diapsid, Ichthyosaur, Sauropterygia


The incompleteness of the fossil record obscures the origin of many of the more derived clades of vertebrates. One such group is the Ichthyopterygia, a clade of obligatory marine reptiles that appeared in the Early Triassic epoch, without any known intermediates. Here we describe a basal ichthyosauriform from the upper Lower Triassic (about 248 million years ago) of China, whose primitive skeleton indicates possible amphibious habits. It is smaller than ichthyopterygians and had unusually large flippers that probably allowed limited terrestrial locomotion. It also retained characteristics of terrestrial diapsid reptiles, including a short snout and body trunk. Unlike more-derived ichthyosauriforms, it was probably a suction feeder. The new species supports the sister-group relationships between ichthyosauriforms and Hupehsuchia, the two forming the Ichthyosauromorpha. Basal ichthyosauromorphs are known exclusively from south China, suggesting that the clade originated in the region, which formed a warm and humid tropical archipelago in the Early Triassic. The oldest unequivocal record of a sauropterygian is also from the same stratigraphic unit of the region.

Concepts: Bird, Synapsid, Dinosaur, Triassic, Diapsid, Ichthyosaur, Sauropterygia, Early Triassic


Following the Permo-Triassic Extinction, large-bodied diapsid reptiles-with a body length >1 m-rapidly expanded their ecological roles. This diversification is reflected in enormous disparity in the development of the rostrum and adductor chamber. However, it is unclear how marked the diversity of the feeding apparatus was in contemporary small-bodied diapsids. Here we describe the remarkably small skull (2.5 cm long) of a saurian reptile, Colobops noviportensis, gen. et sp. nov., from the Triassic New Haven Arkose of Connecticut, USA. The taxon possesses an exceptionally reinforced snout and strikingly expanded supratemporal fossae for adductor musculature relative to any known Mesozoic or Recent diapsid of similar size. Our phylogenetic analyses support C. noviportensis as an early diverging pan-archosaur. Colobops noviportensis reveals extraordinary disparity of the feeding apparatus in small-bodied early Mesozoic diapsids, and a suite of morphologies, functionally related to a powerful bite, unknown in any small-bodied diapsid.

Concepts: Reptile, Synapsid, Dinosaur, Mesozoic, Archosauromorpha, Diapsid, Ichthyosaur, Sauria


In spite of a fossil record spanning over 150 million years, pelvic girdle evolution in Ichthyopterygia is poorly known. Here, we examine pelvic girdle size relationships using quantitative methods and new ophthalmosaurid material from the Slottsmøya Member Lagerstätte of Svalbard, Norway. One of these new specimens, which preserves the most complete ichthyosaur pelvic girdle from the Cretaceous, is described herein as a new taxon, Keilhauia nui gen. et sp. nov. It represents the most complete Berriasian ichthyosaur known and the youngest yet described from the Slottsmøya Member. It is diagnosed on the basis of two autapomorphies from the pelvic girdle, including an ilium that is anteroposteriorly expanded at its dorsal end and an ischiopubis that is shorter or subequal in length to the femur, as well as a unique character combination. The Slottsmøya Member Lagerstätte ichthyosaurs are significant in that they represent a diverse assemblage of ophthalmosaurids that existed immediately preceding and across the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary. They also exhibit considerable variation in pelvic girdle morphology, and expand the known range in size variation of pelvic girdle elements in the clade.

Concepts: Reptile, Cretaceous, Ichthyosaur, Ophthalmosaurus, Ichthyopterygia


Plesiosaurs were the longest-surviving group of secondarily marine tetrapods, comparable in diversity to today’s cetaceans. During their long evolutionary history, which spanned the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (201 to 66 Ma), plesiosaurs repeatedly evolved long- and short-necked body plans [1, 2]. Despite this postcranial plasticity, short-necked plesiosaur clades have traditionally been regarded as being highly constrained to persistent and clearly distinct ecological niches: advanced members of Pliosauridae (ranging from the Middle Jurassic to the early Late Cretaceous) have been characterized as apex predators [2-5], whereas members of the distantly related clade Polycotylidae (middle to Late Cretaceous) were thought to have been fast-swimming piscivores [1, 5-7]. We report a new, highly unusual pliosaurid from the Early Cretaceous of Russia that shows close convergence with the cranial structure of polycotylids: Luskhan itilensis gen. et sp. nov. Using novel cladistic and ecomorphological data, we show that pliosaurids iteratively evolved polycotylid-like cranial morphologies from the Early Jurassic until the Early Cretaceous. This underscores the ecological diversity of derived pliosaurids and reveals a more complex evolutionary history than their iconic representation as gigantic apex predators of Mesozoic marine ecosystems suggests. Collectively, these data demonstrate an even higher degree of morphological plasticity and convergence in the evolution of plesiosaurs than previously thought and suggest the existence of an optimal ecomorphology for short-necked piscivorous plesiosaurs through time and across phylogeny.

Concepts: Evolution, Ecology, Bird, Cretaceous, Jurassic, Plesiosaur, Ichthyosaur, Pliosaur


The holotype and only known specimen of the enigmatic small reptile Elachistosuchus huenei Janensch, 1949 from the Upper Triassic (Norian) Arnstadt Formation of Saxony-Anhalt (Germany) is redescribed using μCT scans of the material. This re-examination revealed new information on the morphology of this taxon, including previously unknown parts of the skeleton such as the palate, braincase, and shoulder girdle. Elachistosuchus is diagnosed especially by the presence of the posterolateral process of the frontal, the extension of the maxillary tooth row to the posterior margin of the orbit, the free posterior process of the jugal, and the notched anterior margin of the interclavicle. Phylogenetic analyses using two recently published character-taxon matrices recovered conflicting results for the phylogenetic position of Elachistosuchus-either as an archosauromorph, as a lepidosauromorph or as a more basal, non-saurian diapsid. These different placements highlight the need of a thorough revision of critical taxa and new character sets used for inferring neodiapsid relationships.

Concepts: Phylogenetic nomenclature, Reptile, Synapsid, Dinosaur, Archosauromorpha, Diapsid, Ichthyosaur, Prolacertiformes