• Anatomy of Rhinochelys pulchriceps (Protostegidae) and marine adaptation during the early evolution of chelonioids

      Evers, SW; Benson, RBJ; Barrett, PM (PeerJ Inc., 2019-05-01)
      Knowledge of the early evolution of sea turtles (Chelonioidea) has been limited by conflicting phylogenetic hypotheses resulting from sparse taxon sampling and a superficial understanding of the morphology of key taxa. This limits our understanding of evolutionary adaptation to marine life in turtles, and in amniotes more broadly. One problematic group are the protostegids, Early–Late Cretaceous marine turtles that have been hypothesised to be either stem-cryptodires, stem-chelonioids, or crown-chelonioids. Different phylogenetic hypotheses for protostegids suggest different answers to key questions, including (1) the number of transitions to marine life in turtles, (2) the age of the chelonioid crown-group, and (3) patterns of skeletal evolution during marine adaptation. We present a detailed anatomical study of one of the earliest protostegids, Rhinochelys pulchriceps from the early Late Cretaceous of Europe, using high-resolution mCT. We synonymise all previously named European species and document the variation seen among them. A phylogeny of turtles with increased chelonioid taxon sampling and revised postcranial characters is provided, recovering protostegids as stem-chelonioids. Our results imply a mid Early Cretaceous origin of total-group chelonioids and an early Late Cretaceous age for crown-chelonioids, which may inform molecular clock analyses in future. Specialisations of the chelonioid flipper evolved in a stepwise-fashion, with innovations clustered into pulses at the origin of total-group chelonioids, and subsequently among dermochelyids, crown-cheloniids, and gigantic protostegids from the Late Cretaceous.
    • Combining simulation modeling and stable isotope analyses to reconstruct the last known movements of one of Nature’s giants

      Trueman, C; Jackson, A; Chadwick, K; Coombs, Ellen J; Feyrer, L; Magozzi, S; Sabin, R; Cooper, N (PeerJ Inc., 2019-10-18)
      The spatial ecology of rare, migratory oceanic animals is difficult to study directly. Where incremental tissues are available, their chemical composition can provide valuable indirect observations of movement and diet. Interpreting the chemical record in incremental tissues can be highly uncertain, however, as multiple mechanisms interact to produce the observed data. Simulation modeling is one approach for considering alternative hypotheses in ecology and can be used to consider the relative likelihood of obtaining an observed record under different combinations of ecological and environmental processes. Here we show how a simulation modeling approach can help to infer movement behaviour based on stable carbon isotope profiles measured in incremental baleen tissues of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). The life history of this particular specimen, which stranded in 1891 in the UK, was selected as a case study due to its cultural significance as part of a permanent display at the Natural History Museum, London. We specifically tested whether measured variations in stable isotope compositions across the analysed baleen plate were more consistent with residency or latitudinal migrations. The measured isotopic record was most closely reproduced with a period of residency in sub-tropical waters for at least a full year followed by three repeated annual migrations between sub-tropical and high latitude regions. The latitudinal migration cycle was interrupted in the year prior to stranding, potentially implying pregnancy and weaning, but isotopic data alone cannot test this hypothesis. Simulation methods can help reveal movement information coded in the biochemical compositions of incremental tissues such as those archived in historic collections, and provides context and inferences that are useful for retrospective studies of animal movement, especially where other sources of individual movement data are sparse or challenging to validate.
    • Graham MR. (2017) The remedial conservation and support jacketing of the neotype specimen of the dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus

      Graham, M (PeerJ Inc., 2017-08-09)
      In March 2017 the neotype specimen of the Early Jurassic South African prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus was appraised and condition reported at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), Johannesburg, in readiness for remedial conservation and re-storage. The work was necessitated by deterioration of the specimen, which was caused by handling over a number of years and an inadequate and failing support mount. Formally numbered BP/1/4934, but more affectionately known to staff as ‘Big Momma’, the specimen was contained within several individual blocks on flimsy support bases and presented various conservation challenges.These included treatment of fractures and cracking across several surfaces of the fossil and the production of clam shell supports to allow for articulated display within the constraints of an existing display cabinet. Part of the brief was to facilitate safer handling and access for researchers. This project was led by the author who also trained the curatorial and preparation staff at WITS in the methods and techniques employed. The visit was funded by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences and The University of the Witwatersrand (WITS).
    • Morphological convergence in "river dolphin" skulls

      Page, CE; Cooper, N (PeerJ Inc., 2017-11-21)
      Convergent evolution can provide insights into the predictability of, and constraints on, the evolution of biodiversity. One striking example of convergence is seen in the ‘river dolphins’. The four dolphin genera that make up the ‘river dolphins’ (Inia geoffrensis, Pontoporia blainvillei, Platanista gangetica and Lipotes vexillifer) do not represent a single monophyletic group, despite being very similar in morphology. This has led many to using the ‘river dolphins’ as an example of convergent evolution. We investigate whether the skulls of the four ‘river dolphin’ genera are convergent when compared to other toothed dolphin taxa in addition to identifying convergent cranial and mandibular features. We use geometric morphometrics to uncover shape variation in the skulls of the ‘river dolphins’ and then apply a number of phylogenetic techniques to test for convergence. We find significant convergence in the skull morphology of the ‘river dolphins’. The four genera seem to have evolved similar skull shapes, leading to a convergent morphotype characterised by elongation of skull features. The cause of this morphological convergence remains unclear. However, the features we uncover as convergent, in particular elongation of the rostrum, support hypotheses of shared feeding mode or diet and thus provide the foundation for future work into convergence within the Odontoceti.
    • Ngwevu intloko: a new early sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Lower Jurassic Elliot Formation of South Africa and comments on cranial ontogeny in Massospondylus carinatus

      Chapelle, KEJ; Barrett, PM; Botha, J; Choiniere, JN (PeerJ Inc., 2019-08-05)
      Our knowledge of Early Jurassic palaeobiodiversity in the upper Elliot Formation of South Africa has increased markedly in recent years with the discovery of new fossils, re-assessments of previously collected material and a better understanding of Stormberg Group stratigraphy. Here, Ngwevu intloko, a new genus of upper Elliot basal sauropodomorph is named on the basis of a complete skull and partial skeleton (BP/1/4779) previously assigned to Massospondylus carinatus. It can be distinguished from all other basal sauropodomorphs by a combination of 16 cranial and six postcranial characters. The new species is compared to a small ontogenetic series of M. carinatus as well as to a range of closely related taxa. Taphonomic deformation, sexual dimorphism and ontogeny are rejected as possible explanations for the morphological differences present between BP/1/4779 and other taxa. Osteohistological examination reveals that BP/1/4779 had nearly reached adult size at the time of its death at a minimum age of 10 years.