Tetrapods of 2007 (happy birthday Tet Zoo part II)

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2007 - Tet Zoo's second year of operation - has come and gone. The previous article was a brief personal review of the year, and here's more of the same (sort of) if you can handle it...

As if Tet Zoo wasn't enough to deal with, in September my partners-in-crime Mike P. Taylor and Matt Wedel [shown here; Mike is the less big one] decided, with me, to start up a new zoological blog, but this time devoted to something a little more specific: namely, sauropod vertebrae (and nothing else, pretty much). So on October 1st, Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW!, was born. Despite murmurings from some that we might struggle to find enough stuff to say for 52 posts, let alone any more than this, there is no doubt whatsoever that SV-POW! is going to be a long-term thing. Already it is world-famous, much-visited and aptly described by wikipedia as 'incredible' and 'highly popular among palaeontology afficianados'. It doesn't quite have the depth or breadth of Tet Zoo of course, but, hey, nearly 14000 visits within less than four months says it can't be wrong.

Technical research in 2007 and beyond

For whatever reason, I continued to produce and publish at least some academic research during 2007. In April, Dave Martill and I published part I of our review of British dinosaurs in the Journal of the Geological Society of London (part II is due to appear in May 2008) and, in May, the paper that Barbara Sánchez-Hernández, Mike Benton and I produced on the vertebrate fossils of Galve in Spain (Sánchez-Hernández et al. 2007) was published in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (we call it Palaeo3). In November, Mike P. Taylor and I published our long-awaited, earth-shattering new British sauropod, Xenoposeidon in Palaeontology, and the world went nuts. The appearance of Martill et al.'s book The Crato Fossil Beds of Brazil: Window into an Ancient World in December meant that my papers on Brazilian Cretaceous turtles (Naish 2007) and birds (Naish et al. 2007) were finally out.

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Other academic work, yet to see the light of day, plodded along during the year. Mark Witton and I spent, literally, the better part of 2007 slowly putting together a big manuscript on the palaeobiology of azhdarchid pterosaurs, and even now it's too early to say when it'll see publication (though it has been submitted). And together with Mike P. Taylor, Paul Upchurch, Adam Yates, and Matt Wedel, I thrashed out a couple of articles on... well, wait and see! Dave Hone and I also worked together on cranial crest distribution in archosaurs. I've been unable to deal with what is, arguably, my priority: the publication of the several papers that should come out of my 2006 phd thesis. Eventually, the papers on Yaverlandia, Eotyrannus, Becklespinax and Valdoraptor will see publication, but I don't know when. At least one Wealden theropod paper did get well underway however (co-authored with Steve Hutt, Steve Brusatte and Roger Benson). A paper on Neovenator and an associated iguanodontian, co-authored by Dave Martill and the late David Cooper, was delayed, again [adjacent image shows me selt-consciously working on Valdoraptor, and surrounded by Wealden sauropod vertebrae. Photo courtesy Mike P. Taylor].

Despite the fact that I've been consistently un-funded, and have a family and have had to do a lot of crappy jobs, I remain somewhat smug about the fact that I manage to publish more technical research papers than many salaried academics I can think of. Yeah, they can often argue that they have teaching to deal with, but I don't see them staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning to get their papers written. In fact, just what the bloody hell do other academics do with their time? And, no, I do not have those of you in mind who publish three or more papers a year. Although my time at the University of Portsmouth effectively finished with the completion of the phd, I'm pleased to say that I was awarded the position of honorary research associate late in 2007, so, for the time being at least, I can continue to justify leaving my posters on the wall, and my taking up of valuable desk space.

The tetrapods of 2007

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2007 was a particularly interesting year for several groups of animals I've written about on Tet Zoo, but then I think you might say that about most years. On Palaeozoic tetrapods, we had a pretty good sampling of new papers on temnospondyls (particularly on mastodonsauroids), including on their scalation, colour patterns (Werneburg 2007) and on direct evidence for their role in Permian food webs (Kriwet et al. 2007) [adjacent image shows food chain figure from Kriwet et al. (2007). Temnospondyl eats acanthodian. Xenacanthid shark eats temnospondyl]. Non-mammalian synapsids (including dicynodonts, burnetiamorphs, traversodontids and tritylodontids) were in the journals a bit, and we saw the new Mesozoic mammals Nanocuris, Ferganodon, Gondtherium, Yanoconodon, Dakshina, Bharattherium, Argentodites, Argentoconodon, Pseudotribos and Maelestes! If you google Dakshina you'll see why it was a poorly chosen name - anyway, it may well be synonymous with Bharattherium.

A major work on Mesozoic turtles saw publication (Joyce 2007) and the incredible long-necked gliding Mecistotrachelos was described (Mecistotrachelos is a possible protorosaur and relative of Tanystropheus: it's shown at the top of the image below). Having mentioned Tanystropheus, Nosotti's new monograph on this taxon appeared, finally updating Wild's classic (but much outdated) work of 1973. And on weird gliding reptiles, a new specimen of Coelurosauravus was described, and the Cretaceous gliding lizard Xianlong was announced. New basal snakes, long-bodied anguimorphs and mosasauroids joined the ranks, as did the beautifully preserved Cretaceous iguanian Saichangurvel, the most basal member of the newly recognized gobiguanian clade. Choristoderes were in the news what with the discovery of a two-headed baby.

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Research on Triassic archosaurs, including crurotarsans and early dinosaurs and their relatives, had a good year, and several new Mesozoic theropods, including a giant dromaeosaur-eating compsognathid (Sinocalliopteryx: shown in middle of adjacent image), new therizinosauroids, an alvarezsaurid, and the immense oviraptorosaur Gigantoraptor, were published. The tenth Archaeopteryx specimen - the best one yet - was monographed (Mayr et al. 2007), and feather quill knobs were reported in Velociraptor (Turner et al. 2007). It was also a significant year for the sauropodomorph dinosaurs we used to call prosauropods, with an important volume devoted entirely to these neglected dinosaurs seeing publication. A surprising amount was published on ceratopsians, including announcements of new species as well as new data on their biology, phylogeny and distribution. At last, a good response to all that nonsense about skim-feeding in pterosaurs was published (Humphries et al. 2007).

As goes fossil Cenozoic tetrapods, the research renaissance on fossil penguins, beaked and baleen whales, and sloths continued, a lot of neat new stuff was published on phorushacids (I'll be covering this later), and several papers appeared on both new and old island-dwelling crocodilians. Key new papers appeared on raoellids (a group of Eocene artiodactyls now thought to be the sister-taxon to whales), early plesiadapiforms (basal members of Primates), the fossorial mesotheriid notoungulates, and bizarre little Necrolestes from the Miocene of Patagonia. New fossil hominids, including those from Georgia, Lake Turkana in Kenya and Flores, continued to be big news, as was the discovery of Neanderthals in central Asia and Siberia, and the late Miocene Chororapithecus [shown at bottom of adjacent image], allegedly the oldest known member of the gorilla lineage (Suwa et al. 2007).

On living animals, we had the amazing announcement that wolves Canis lupus might be three phylogenetically distinct species (Aggarwal et al. 2007), and the publication of Leonard et al.'s paper on a hitherto undocumented robust-skulled Pleistocene wolf morph from Beringia (Leonard et al. 2007). The announcement of a resurrected clouded leopard species caused a stir. Continuing argument over the validity of the Kouprey Bos sauveli resulted in at least four new papers on this subject, and the dwarf Antarctic killer whale was recognised as distinct in a study by Pitman et al. (2007). Morphological synapomorphies were finally identified for Afrotheria (Sánchez-Villagra et al. 2007). Long-awaited papers on the phylogeography and taxonomy of giraffes appeared, and equally long-awaited was Livezey & Zusi's (2007) massive analysis of neornithine bird phylogeny. This is the ultimate morphology-based look at bird phylogeny, but it certainly hasn't ended the debate and already other ornithologists are complaining about it (e.g., Mayr 2007).

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More was published about the bird-eating habits of noctule bats, chimps were shown to hunt using spears, and it was proposed both that the origin of bipedality may have originated near the base of Hominoidea (Filler 2007), and that hominoid bipedality originated in arboreal taxa that first used bipedality as a means of locomoting on flexible branches (Thorpe et al. 2007a, b). The Giant peccary Pecari maximus, Mindoro stripe-faced fruitbat Styloctenium mindorensis [shown in adjacent image], Otto's sportive lemur Lepilemur otto, Manasamody sportive lemur L. manasamody, Uganda mangabey Lophocebus ugandae, White-lipped keelback Amphiesma leucomystax (a Vietnamese natricine snake), Ashe's spitting cobra Naja ashei, Central Ranges taipan Oxyuranus temporalis, Gorgeted puffleg Eriocnemis isabellae (a hummingbird from Colombia), Rufous twistwing Cnipodectes superrufus (a tyrant flycatcher) and Solomon Islands frogmouth Rigidipenna inexpectata were all formally described during the year. A surprising amount was published on burrowing snakes. Speciation by allochrony - a real big deal, but apparently missed by science journalists - was documented in the Madeiran or Band-rumped storm petrel Oceanodroma catro (Friesen et al. 2007).

Toward the end of the year I became increasingly involved in writing about living amphibians, firstly because I wanted to help out with the EDGE amphibians project (which of course launched earlier this week), and secondly because I was asked to help promote the Year of the Frog launch. I've always been passionate about conservation but have rarely had the chance to do much about it. At least now I can say I've done something: if you're interested in amphibians, and concerned about the global declines that many species are experiencing, please sign the Amphibian Ark petition - go here, it only takes about 20 seconds to complete the process.

So, here we are, in 2008. My own future is uncertain and frightening, but I don't think it can get worse. We have a lot to forward to in 2008 and beyond.

Refs - -

Aggarwal, R. K., Kivisild, T., Ramadevi, J. & Singh, L. 2007. Mitochondrial DNA coding region sequences support the phylogenetic distinction of two Indian wolf species. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 45, 163-172.

Filler, A. G. 2007. Homeotic evolution in the Mammalia: diversification of therian axial seriation and the morphogenetic basis of humans origins. PLoS ONE 2, No. 10, e1019 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001019

Friesen, V. L., Smith, A. L., Gómez-Diaz, E., Bolton, M., Furness, R. W., González-Solis, J. & Monteiro, L. R. 2007. Sympatric speciation by allochrony in a seabird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 18589-18594.

Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H. C., Witton, M. P. & Martill, D. M. 2007. Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS Biology 5, No. 8, e204 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050204

Joyce, W. G. 2007. Phylogenetic relationships of Mesozoic turtles. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History 48, 3-102.

Kriwet, J., Witzmann, F., Klug, S. & Heidtke, U. H. J. 2007. First direct evidence of a vertebrate three-level trophic chain in the fossil record. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275, 181-186.

Leonard, J. A., Vilà, C., Fox-Dobbs, K., Koch, P. L., Wayne, R. K. & Van Valkenburgh, B. 2007. Megafaunal extinctions and the disappearance of a specialized wolf ecomorph. Current Biology 17, 1146-1150.

Livezey, B. C. & Zusi, R. L. 2007. Higher-order phylogeny of modern birds (Theropoda, Aves: Neornithes) based on comparative anatomy. II. Analysis and discussion. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 149, 1-95.

Mayr, G. 2007. Avian higher- level phylogeny: well-supported clades and what we can learn from a phylogenetic analysis of 2954 morphological characters. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0469.2007.00433.x

- ., Pohl, B., Hartman, S. & Peters, D. S. 2007. The tenth skeletal specimen of Archaeopteryx. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 149, 97-116.

Naish, D. 2007. Turtles of the Crato Formation. In Martill, D. M., Bechly, G. & Loveridge, R. F. (eds) The Crato Fossil Beds of Brazil: Window into an Ancient World. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), pp. 452-457.

- ., Martill, D. M. & Merrick, I. 2007. Birds of the Crato Formation. In Martill, D. M., Bechly, G. & Loveridge, R. F. (eds) The Crato Fossil Beds of Brazil: Window into an Ancient World. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), pp. 525-533.

Pitman, R. L., Perryman, W. L., LeRoi, D. & Eilers, E. 2007. A dwarf form of killer whale in Antarctica. Journal of Mammalogy 88, 43-48.

Sánchez-Hernández, B., Benton, M. J. & Naish, D. 2007. Dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of the Galve area, NE Spain. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 249, 180-215.

Sánchez-Villagra, M. R., Narit, Y. & Kuratani, S. 2007. Thoracolumbar vertebral number: the first skeletal synapomorphy for afrotherian mammals. Systematics and Biodiversity 5, 1-7.

Suwa, G. Kono, R. T., Katoh, S., Asfaw, B. & Beyene, Y. 2007. A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia. Nature 448, 921-924.

Thorpe, S. K. S., Crompton, R. H. & Alexander, R. McN. 2007a. Orangutans utilise compliant branches to lower the energetic cost of locomotion. Biology Letters doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0049

- ., Holder, R. L. & Crompton, R. H. 2007b. Origin of human bipedalism as an adaptation for locomotion on flexible branches. Science 316, 1328-1331.

Turner, A. H., Makovicky, P. J. & Norell, M. A. 2007. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science 317, 1721.

Werneburg, R. 2007. Timeless design: colored pattern of skin in early Permian branchiosaurids (Temnospondyli: Dissorophoidea). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27, 1047-1050.


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Nice post...Let's hope 2008 will be as good!!
For the history it's Saichangurvel (not Sachiangurvel)

By Georgios Georgalis (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink


Thank you very much for your efforts. I have really enjoyed your blog, which I consider one of the best, if not THE best, on the web. I have not always agreed with your conclusions, but I have found your articles fascinating and well argued.

I hope your skills and abilities are recognised by those in a position to reward them, such as by a decent job that pays well (though obviously one that leaves you enough time to keep Tetzoo going).

Once again, thank you and best wishes, have a wonderful 2008.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink

Thanks Georgios and Mark for your kind words and support. Mark: out of interest, which conclusions of mine haven't you agreed with? All the best.

Good luck from all local tetrapods!

BTW - considered moving elsewhere? This must be *** of university not to give you position.

Mesozoic turtles and "the incredible long-necked gliding Mecistotrachelos" in close proximity spark pleasant mental images of flying turtles..... Hmmm. Next April 1?


your publication record is genuinely impressive given your commitments. All I would say is that teaching is indeed a time sapper, but so is the grant writing. To write a proper serious grant takes me (at the moment, I am sure it will accelerate with time) about 3 weeks full time, and I write 3 or 4 a year. Plus teaching and supervising student projects etc. It soon mounts up.

Still, well done and keep the publications coming. You'll be dlighted to know the crest stuff is well on track! I'll try and give you a month or two before the next session!

Best wishes for work, life and research!

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink

About those skimming pterosaurs... I have been thinking about the extreme headgear on some. One substantial effect I have not seen discussed is that it would give the head a very large moment of rotational inertia per unit of excess lofted mass. That could make it actually useful, allowing the creature (e.g.) to dip its beak/snout in the water while flying (and maybe catch something) without having its whole head snapped instantly downward, as happens to birds that dip on the wing. It might be equally effective for snatching lizards sunning themselves on high rocks without risk of (pterosaur) neck trauma, so this isn't actually an argument for skimming.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink

If you google Dakshina you'll see why it was a poorly chosen name

That might have been deliberate.

a new specimen of Coelurosauravus was described

What? Where?

And what is the new alvarezsaurid???

Morphological synapomorphies were finally identified for Afrotheria

Autapomorphies. One taxon has autapomorphies (auto- "self), two taxa share synapomorphies (syn- "together"). Hey, it's not my fault Hennig loved making up technical terms just for the fun of it. :-}

This is the ultimate morphology-based look at bird phylogeny, but it certainly hasn't ended the debate and already other ornithologists are complaining about it (e.g., Mayr 2007).

Well yes. There are almost no fossils in the matrix. No wonder it gets such surprising results. Livezey & Zusi were not megalomaniac enough :o)

Plus, a few hundred of the characters are parsimony-uninformative. Adding yet more taxa ought to help here, too.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 27 Jan 2008 #permalink

It's been a great year for tetrapods! Speaking of which, does anybody have a copy of the Sinocallipteryx paper? That's one compsognathid I can't get my hands on.

Thanks for comments everyone, and for best wishes etc. Quick responses to a few things... mostly to David, as usual :) ...

New Coelurosauravus specimen..

Schaumberg, G., Unwin, D. M. & Brandt, S. 2007. New information on the anatomy of the Late Permian gliding reptile Coelurosauravus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81, 160-173.

New alvarezsaurid is Achillesaurus mannazonei..

Martinelli, A. G. & Vera, E.I. 2007. Achillesaurus manazzonei, a new alvarezsaurid theropod (Dinosauria) from the Late Cretaceous Bajo de la Carpa Formation, Río Negro Province, Argentina. Zootaxa 1582, 1-17.

Use of term 'synapomorphies' for one taxon: you're right, but what I (and Sánchez-Villagra et al.) are saying is 'we found a synapomorphy that unites afrotherians'.

And.. Sinocalliopteryx. There is a pdf out there, stay tuned and I'll send it (unless anyone beats me to it).

This is a wonderful blog! I am very glad that I stumbled upon it in 2007 -- I learn so much here that I would not have heard of otherwise, about tetrapods living and extinct.

Happy birthday, and please do continue! Here's to a great 2008!

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 27 Jan 2008 #permalink

Happy Blog-birthday!

Your posts are always unique, well researched, and well-written, and I enjoy them very much.

Don't know whether you've seen Dr. R. Lang's origami pteranodon in the Redpath Museum, but here's a link just in case you haven't (a small birthday present, I guess):


You, sir, are a zoologist without peer. Congratulations on your second year bringing the tetrapods to the masses. Your work here, your intimidating publishing record, your sitcom-worthy adventures in making a living--any one of the three would be an achievement. That you managed them all at the same time is nuts. If you get into an academic job we're all doomed. But I wish you the best of luck. Someone's bound to notice and offer you an endowed chair one of these days.

Thanks for finding a picture that doesn't make me look like Fatsquatch.