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Resurrecting the Unfortunate Dragon

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The five metre-long holotype specimen of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus, from the Jurassic of Street-on-the-Fosse, Somerset, was one of several plesiosaurs once displayed in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. As one of the earliest plesiosaurs to evolve it is an important species for understanding the early history of the group. Sadly, the fossil skeleton was destroyed along with many other important specimens when the museum was struck by a bomb during the Second World War. This destroyed fossil material is sometimes referred to today as the ‘ghost collection’.

Atychodracon skeleton

Historical photograph of the holotype skeleton (BRSMG Cb 2335) of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846). Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery. Length of skeleton equals 4960 mm.

Thankfully, all was not lost. Moulds had been taken from some of the fossils before the war, and in the case of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus, multiple casts of its skull and forelimb were produced prior to its destruction. These were deposited in the collections of several museums, including the British Geological Survey (BGS), Keyworth; Natural History Museum, London; and Trinity College, Dublin.

The casts provide a valuable resource that I was able to use to describe ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus in an article published this year in the open access journal Palaeontologia Electronica (18.1.20A p.1-19). The study focused on the casts held in the BGS, but was also facilitated by The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery who provided historical photographs of the ‘ghost collection’ from their archives. The photo (above) shows how the entire fossil skeleton appeared before it was destroyed. The BGS also produced three-dimensional digital laser scans of the casts as part of their JISC-funded ‘GB3D fossil types online’ project. The resulting virtual models are free to view or download (here) and can be rotated on screen or 3D-printed.

Atychodracon skeleton

Three dimensional scan with texture (colour) removed of plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the holotype (BRSMG Cb 2335) skull of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) in ventral (palatal) view. Scale bar equals 100 mm.

The skeleton of ‘Plesiosaurus’ megacephalus is distinct enough from all other plesiosaurs, including Rhomaleosaurus and Eurycleidus, to warrant a new genus name. I called it Atychodracon, meaning ’Unfortunate Dragon’, in reference to the unfortunate destruction of the original fossil material. This project also demonstrates that casts of fossils, and 3D laser scans, can provide valuable data for palaeontologists – they can be described, measured, and coded into analyses. When original fossil material has been lost, damaged or destroyed, the scientific value of casts increases even further. This study is the first publication to make use of the publicly available repository of 3D laser scans provided by the BGS. The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is now investigating the possibility of using physical representations of their ‘ghost collection’ in future exhibitions, to bring long lost fossils such as Atychodracon ‘back to life’.

Find out more by checking out the article at Palaeontologia Electronica.

Atychodracon skeleton

Plaster cast (BGS GSM 118410) of the ventral surface of the right forelimb of the holotype of Atychodracon megacephalus (Stutchbury, 1846) (BRSMG Cb 2335). 1, three dimensional scan with texture (colour) removed, 2, photograph, 3, interpretation.

Written by Adam S. Smith

October 18th, 2015 at 12:01 am

Pliosaurus kevani – the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

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I’ve been rather quiet again recently, however, as coauthor of an article just published in PLOS ONE, I’ve good reason to come out of my shell today. The new paper describes and names the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur, a spectacular almost complete skull over 2m long. As discussed in the open access paper (take a look), the specimen is sufficiently different from all other pliosaurs to warrant a scientific name of its own, Pliosaurus kevani.

Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

Pliosaurus kevani was named to honour Kevan Sheehan, the Osmington Mills café owner who collected most of the skull, piece by piece, over a period of eight years. Kevan collected chunks up to 60 kg each as they weathered out from the Jurassic aged Kimmeridge Clay Formation sea-cliff. The specimen was purchased with funding secured by Dorset County Council’s museum service from the Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures programme, and Dorset and Devon county councils. It was prepared between 2010 and 2011 by Scott Moore-Fay and went on public display in Dorchester County Museum in July 2011.

Richard Forrest, who was involved with the project from the beginning, first had the idea of putting together a ‘dream team’ of British plesiosaur specialists to study and describe the skull. This is the first collaboration of its kind among plesiosaur researchers (as far as I know), and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to contribute to it under the driving force of our lead author, Roger Benson.

Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

Roger Benson (left) and Richard Forrest (right) collecting data from the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur – Pliosaurus kevani

The massive skull has a long snout, circular orbits, huge temporal openings for the jaw musculature, and a deep mandible. Large portions of the skull have been crushed flat during fossilisation, so one of my tasks was to reconstruct the skull to show how it might have appeared before it was flattened. After several versions and much input from Mark Evans, I’m pleased with how it turned out, and I think we’ve produced a pretty accurate reconstruction of Pliosaurus. On the basis of this reconstruction I’ve also had a go at restoring the life appearance of P. kevani in profile. Despite its large size and massive teeth, the head is rather gracile.

Weymouth Bay Pliosaur
Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

Pliosaurus belongs to a group of plesiosaurians known as thalassophonean pliosaurs. If you haven’t heard of them before, that’s because the name Thalassophonea, or “sea slayers”, was proposed just this year (Benson & Druckenmiller, 2013) for a natural group of derived giant pliosaurids including Pliosaurus, Liopleurodon, and Kronosaurus. Thalassophoneans were macropredators, that is, giant predators doing the sort of dirty work in the Middle-Late Jurassic and Cretaceous that rhomaleosaurids did in the Early Jurassic. The paper also discusses the evolution of pliosaurids. The earliest thalassophoneans have a long mandibular symphysis, but in later members the symphysis becomes shorter. This trend is related to a shift in the dietary habits of pliosaurs from primarily fish-eaters to macropredators. In conjunction with this trend, we demonstrate that pliosaurids tend to follow Cope’s Rule – they get larger throughout their evolutionary history.

Weymouth Bay Pliosaur

We also name two other new species of Pliosaurus in the paper, P. westburyensis and P. carpenteri, based on material in the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery from Westbury, Wiltshire. Again, there are morphological aspects of these specimens that distinguish them from one another, but don’t justify new genus names. So, add these new species to the existing list of valid Pliosaurus species and we find ourselves with a rather large number of species within a single genus. The others being: P. funkei, also known as Predator X, P. brachydeirus, P. rossicus, and there might be one or two more pending thorough description of the material. Some invalid species of Pliosaurus have recently been sunk too. Future research might show greater generic diversity among these species, but that’s really dependent on the discovery of more satisfactory fossil material.

Written by Adam S. Smith

May 31st, 2013 at 9:21 pm

A new Lyme Regis pliosaur

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Earlier this month I co-authored a poster at SVP 2012 describing a new pliosaur from the Sinemurian of Lyme Regis (Smith and Araújo, 2012). I was unable to attend the conference in person so my collaborator and friend Ricardo Araujo was on hand to present our preliminary findings.

Ricardo Araújo stands proudly next to our poster at SVP 2012. Ricardo is conducting a PhD on plesiosaurs at the Southern Methodist University, Texas.

The spectacular specimen was discovered at Black Ven, Lyme Regis, and was acquired by the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hanover, where it was expertly prepared in the 1990s by their preparator, Elija Widman. The fossil consists of an almost complete skull and vertebral column.

The Lyme Regis pliosaur as articulated

As explained in our poster, the fossil represents a new taxon that is both stratigraphically and morphologically intermediate between known Hettangian and Toarcian rhomaleosaurid pliosaurs. Which makes perfect sense. A legible (just about) jpg version of the poster is available here or by clicking the small version below, and a PDF of the abstract is available here. This is very much a work in progress though and more of a sneak preview than a final word. We have a paper in prep which will provide a more detailed description of the specimen.

Poster for SVP 2012

References
Smith, A.S. and Araújo, R. 2012. A new rhomaleosaurid pliosaur from the Sinemurian (Lower Jurassic) of Lyme Regis, UK. Program and abstracts, 72nd Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Supplement to the online Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 74. [PDF here]

[Incidentally, how does one cite an SVP abstract correctly these days?]

New plesiosaurs, lots of new plesiosaurs!

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There was a time when I’d leap into tippy-tappy action at the first sniff of a newly named plesiosaur. Unfortunately, I haven’t been keeping Plesiosaur Bites up to date and a few new taxa have passed me by. Of course, when I say “a few”, what I really mean is we are swamped by the things. Little wonder I haven’t been able to keep up.

A few years ago I plotted a graph in my PhD thesis (Smith, 2007, Figure 2.2.) to show the number of valid plesiosaur species and genera named in successive 20-year time intervals since 1821 (when the first plesiosaur was named [Plesiosaurus]). The data ended in 2007, the year I submitted my thesis, but showed that new taxa were being erected at a relatively steady rate throughout the 19th and 20th century (Figure 1). The rate started to pick up during the 1990s and I extrapolated the data into 2008-2020 based on the first seven years of the 21st century. I predicted 30 new genera in the period 2001-2020, which would represent a huge post-2001 leap in the number of new valid plesiosaurs. Well, so much for my crude calculations. It’s only 2012 and my ‘huge’ prediction has already been surpassed.

New plesiosaur taxa

Figure 1. Tally of the number of new plesiosaur taxa per 20-year interval (from Smith, 2007, Y-axis adjusted for direct comparison with Figure 2 below). 2001-2020 predicted based on 2001-2007 data.

An adjusted prediction for 2001-2020 based on the average rate of new taxa from 2001-2012 is actually pretty staggering (Figure 2).  62 new species and 51 new genera in a 20-year period? Can this be right, or are we about to reach a major drop off – were the last two years just out of the ordinary? Time will tell, but there are no signs yet of the bombardment slowing down, and if my previous prediction is anything to go by, the figure could even be an under-estimate.

New plesiosaur taxa
Figure 2. Adjusted plot, with the 2001-2020 prediction based on 2001-2012 data.

So, how many plesiosaurs have been actually been named since 2008? Here’s a summary of all the new additions so the group:

Borealonectes (2008)

Nichollssaura, Gallardosaurus (2009)

Meyerasaurus, Alexeyisaurus (2010)

Abyssosaurus, Westphaliosaurus, Hauffiosaurus tomistomimus, Marmornectes,  Zarafasaura (2011).

Albertonectes, Anningasaura, Avalonnectes, Cryonectes, Lusonectes, Djupedalia, Dolichorhynchops tropicensis, Eoplesiosaurus,  Pliosaurus funkei, Spitrasaurus wensaasi, Spitrasaurus larsoni, and Stratesaurus (2012). So far.

Presuming I haven’t missed any (and please let me know if I have), that’s 22 new binomial taxa in the space of five years: 18 new genera and 21 new species (I’ve only listed the new species names above where they belong to existing genera, or where two new species have been erected within a new genus). I think this significant increase is due to several factors.

Firstly, historic plesiosaur specimens are receiving a considerable amount of renewed research attention. Many of the new taxa are based on fossils excavated in Victorian times. Anningasaura, Avalonectes, Eoplesiosaurus, Lusonectes, Strateosaurus, all fall into this category. Plesiosaurus continues to be exposed as the waste basket taxon it is.

Secondly, there have been numerous new discoveries in recent years. Sometimes these are the result of chance. Sometimes they are the result of a positive relationships that have developed between collectors or mining/quarrying businesses and palaeontologists. But often they are due to dedicated efforts to explore new strata or geographical areas. Djupedalia, Pliosaurus funkei (‘Predator X’ and ‘The Monster’), Spitrasaurus, and Zarafasaura, come to mind here.

Finally, more palaeontologists are looking at plesiosaurs in general. With fresh eyes. We are seeing differences where we weren’t even looking before, we are examining specimens more closely and more critically, we are applying new techniques and technologies to gain a greater understanding of plesiosaur anatomy, biology and phylogeny. It is inevitable that as more of us look, and as we look in more detail, we begin to unravel the complexity and diversity within Plesiosauria. Similar things are also happening in ichthyosaur research and mosasaur research, and I fully expect this ‘Mesozoic Marine Reptile Renaissance’ to continue into the foreseeable future. I’m looking forward to what the future holds in the world of plesiosaurs, even if I am struggling to keep up. One of these days I might even get around to writing about some of these new taxa and adding them to The Plesiosaur Directory…

References

Smith, A. S. 2007. Anatomy and systematics of the Rhomaleosauridae (Sauropterygia: Plesiosauria). PhD thesis. University College Dublin, 278pp. (Unpublished) (download PDF – 12.5mb )

Written by Adam S. Smith

October 17th, 2012 at 12:00 pm