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Thaumatodracon – the Wonder Dragon

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In 2012 I co-presented a poster at the SVP annual meeting on a new plesiosaur from Lyme Regis, UK (see my article about it here). The long awaited follow up paper was finally published this summer in the latest volume of Palaeontographica A (Smith and Araújo, 2017) and the beast now has a name, Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi, meaning ‘Wiedenroth’s Wonder Dragon’.

The Lower Saxony State Museum commissioned artist Luzia Soares to create a stylistic impression of Thaumatodracon. Copyright L. Soares 2017

Thaumatodracon was a top-predator that cruised around the shallow Tethys Ocean that covered Europe about 195 million years ago. It had a 60 cm long skull with dozens of sharp teeth, an estimated total body length of 6.5 m, and may have weighed around 2 tonnes. The specimen was collected from Lyme Regis in 1969 by Kurt Wiedenroth, an amateur German palaeontologist to whom we dedicated the new species name. The Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover (Lower Saxony State Museum) acquired the specimen later that year where it was subsequently prepared by Elijah Widmann during the 1990s.

Kurt Wiedenroth hunting for ammonites in Lower Cretaceous deposits near Hanover, Germany. Kurt discovered Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi in Lyme Regis in 1969. Photo courtesy of Sönke Simonsen.

The nearly complete skull and neck of this plesiosaur are exquisitely preserved, and Ricardo Araújo and I visited the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover in 2011, where we identified it as a new species that fills a gap in the fossil record of rhomaleosaurids. Diagnostic ones, anyway. The holotype of ‘Plesiosaurus’ macrocephalus, also from Lyme Regis, could well be a rhomaleosaurid, but since it is a juvenile it is difficult to diagnose. Our findings in Hanover were too late to include in my PhD thesis dedicated to rhomaleosaurids, but better late than never.

The preserved parts of the skeleton – the head and neck – are highlighted in dark grey

The holotype specimen, laid out in dorsal view.

Details and interpretation of the skull

In addition to a thorough comparative description, we conducted morphometric analyses to compare Thaumatodracon to all other rhomaleosaurid plesiosaurs. We found that the new taxon possesses transitional characteristics that are consistent with its intermediate position in the plesiosaur family tree. This is also more or less what we would predict to find because it is from the Sinemurian, which makes it stratigraphically intermediate between the older Hettangian rhomaleosaurid fauna (Atychodracon) and younger Toarcian rhomaleosaurid fauna (Rhomaleosaurus, Meyerasaurus).

The new genus is a nod to ‘Thaumatosaurus’, a powerful name that was once used interchangeably with Rhomaleosaurus. It was also widely applied to the holotype specimen of Meyerasaurus victor before I came along and made ‘Thaumatosaurus’ a nomen dubium (see my article about that here). So, I chose the name Thaumatodracon as atonement, but also because plesiosaurs were true wonders of the prehistoric world and Ricardo and I wanted to give this new species a name to reflects that.

Rhomaleosaurids have traditionally been regarded as pliosaurs. Although we called Thaumatodracon a pliosaur in our original poster presentation, the position of Rhomaleosauridae within Plesiosauria has since become disputed. Several studies now suggest that the rhomaleosaurid family diverged from other plesiosaurs before the pliosaur/plesiosauroid dichotomy, which is why we avoid calling Thaumatodracon a pliosaur in our paper.

The journal has requested that I do not share the PDF publicly, but I’m free to email it, so drop me an email if you’re interested: [email protected]

Reference
Smith, A.S. and Araújo, R. 2017. Thaumatodracon wiedenrothi, a morphometrically and stratigraphically intermediate new rhomaleosaurid plesiosaurian from the Lower Jurassic (Sinemurian) of Lyme Regis. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 308 (4-6), 89-125. doi:10.1127/pala/308/2017/89

Written by Adam S. Smith

August 29th, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Monograph on Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni

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Many readers will be familiar with the giant plesiosaur on display in the marine reptiles gallery of the Natural History Museum, London. This is a cast of the 7 metre long holotype of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, the original of which is housed in the National Museum of Ireland (Natural History) and formed the basis for my PhD thesis back in (time flies!) 2007. However, The Natural History Museum, London, also has its very own massive (also ~7 m long) and quite real Rhomaleosaurus type specimen to rival the ‘Dublin Pliosaur’ in size. NHMUK PV R4853, the mighty Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni, is from the Toarcian (Lower Jurassic) of Northamptonshire. It was donated to the museum prior to 1922 but has never been described and figured in its entirety before.

Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni

Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni cast on display in the NHM, London

 

My newest paper, co-authored with Roger Benson (Smith & Benson 2014), provides a detailed description and photographic atlas of the entire skeleton of Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni, and it was published by the Palaeontographical Society just in time for me to distribute copies to colleagues at the SVP annual meeting in Berlin last November (2014). Few monographs of this kind, i.e. a comprehensive treatments of a single taxon, exist for plesiosaurians, especially up-to-date ones, so the paper should prove useful. The monograph includes 35 photographic plates depicting, essentially, every bone in the skeleton from multiple angles. We describe the skeleton in detail and figure the more complicated elements as interpretive illustrations. It’s just a bigger than average descriptive paper, really, but one that has been many years in the making (even more than it usually takes!). I’ve been waiting for the published monograph to be listed on the Palaeontographical Society publications page prior to posting this article, but since it is not yet forthcoming I decided to post this anyway. I’ll update this blog entry with a link to the volume once it is listed. [Edit – here is the link]:

Rhomaleosaurus ilia

Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni ilia (Plate 33 from Smith & Benson [2014])

The entire manuscript, including the photographs and figures, is completely new: this is not a rehash of my PhD thesis on Rhomaleosaurus. The skeletal reconstruction is brand new as well and I hope that it comes to replace my previous reconstruction of Rhomaleosaurus in time, which I was never completely satisfied with (figured in Smith [2007], Smith & Dyke [2008], and Smith [2013]). It is important to highlight that the new reconstruction represents R. thorntoni specifically, which we demonstrate is a distinct species, whereas the previous reconstruction represented Rhomaleosaurus sp. using R. cramptoni where possible and R. thorntoni as a proxy where not. As such, the original reconstruction was a mishmash of two different species, with related scaling errors. Most of the differences apparent between the new and old reconstructions are, however, due to stylistic improvements and a greater attention to detail, rather than genuine anatomical differences between R. cramptoni and R. thorntoni. The lateral view, especially, had some perspective issues with the ribs and limbs, which are corrected in the new reconstruction. There is still some margin for error in the proportions of the tail and neck in the new reconstruction because these are incomplete in the holotype (and only known specimen) of R. thorntoni, but I’m much more satisfied with it.

Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni

Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni reconstruction. Scale bar = 1m.

There is some doubt over the systematic position of rhomaleosaurids. They are traditionally regarded as pliosaurs, but they might not really be included within that clade, so for this reason we refrained from referring Rhomaleosaurus to Pliosauroidea in the title. We don’t include a cladistic analysis in our monograph to investigate this question, but we do summarise all previous ones and identify areas of relationship consensus within the clade Rhomaleosauridae. More cladistic work is required to confirm whether rhomaleosaurids are an early plesiosaurian offshoot, or pliosaurs proper.

Rhomaleosaurid cladograms

Ingroup relationships of rhomaleosauridae according to different researchers (text-fig 11 from Smith & Benson [2014])

So, where’s the PDF? Sadly, there isn’t one, and this has been discussed and debated in some detail over at SV-POW (here). I say ‘there isn’t one’, but what I really mean is that distribution of the PDF is forbidden, since a beautiful PDF does exist (I was annotating it in the final proof stages). I was hopeful that permission would be granted for me to share the final PDF along with the hard copies provided for authors to distribute, but it was not to be. Of course, I’m disappointed about the barrier this puts between my research and potential readers, and I’m concerned about the impact this might have on it being cited. However, the hard copy is a quality publication, which can be thought of as more of a book than a paper. Those individuals that require it for research purposes can always request one from me directly – I can’t make promises but drop me an email if you have a serious interest ([email protected]).

The Palaeontographical Society funded some of my visits to the Natural History Museum to see the fossil material and this influenced my decision to select the Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society as a publication venue for this work. Plus, the format suits such an exhaustive treatment. I’d  like to thank the editor, Yves Candela, who made a significant contribution to the volume and coordinated the whole process.

Update: The monograph is now available for sale from the Pal Soc website here.

References:

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

Smith, A.S. 2013. Morphology of the caudal vertebrae in Rhomaleosaurus zetlandicus and a review of the evidence for a tail fin in Plesiosauria. Paludicola 9 (3): 144–158.

Smith, A.S. and Dyke, G.J. 2008. The skull of the giant predatory pliosaur Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni: implications for plesiosaur phylogenetics. Naturwissenschaften, 95, 975-980.

Smith A.S. and Benson R.B.J. 2014. Osteology of Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni (Sauropterygia: Rhomaleosauridae) from the Lower Jurassic (Toarcian) of Northamptonshire, England. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society, London: 168 (642), 1–40, pls 1–35.

Written by Adam S. Smith

January 8th, 2015 at 12:58 pm

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

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