Shaking dinosaur hips and messing with their heads

by Piter Kehoma Boll

This week brought astonishing news regarding the phylogeny of dinosaurus, as you perhaps have heard or read. New anatomical evidences have completely rebuilt the basis of the dinosaur family tree and I’m here to explain a little bit of what happened.

As we all know, Dinosaurs include a great variety of beasts, from the meat-eating theropods to the long-necked sauropods and from the horned ceratopsians to the armored ankylosaurs, among many others.


Silhouette of a human compared to the largest known dinosaurs of each major group. Picture by Matt Martyniuk.*

For more than a century now, dinosaurus have been divided into two groups, called Ornithischia and Saurischia. Ornithischia (“bird-hipped”) includes dinosaurus whose pelvic bones are more similar to what is found in birds, with a pubis directed backward. Saurischia (“lizard-hipped”), on the other hand, have a pubis directed forward, as in reptiles in general. This grouped the theropods and the sauropods in the same group as Saurischia while other dinosaurus were grouped as Ornithischia. But birds are actually theropods, thus being lizard-hipped dinosaurus and not bird-hipped dinosaurus! Confusing, isn’t it? So let’s take a look at their hips:


Comparison of the hips of a crocodile (Crocodylus), a sauropod (Diplodocus), a non-avian theropod (Tyrannosaurus), a bird (Apteryx), a thyreophoran (Stegosaurus), and an ornithopod (Iguanodon). Red = pubis; Blue = ischium; Yellow = ilium. Picture by myself, Piter K. Boll.**

As you can see, the primitive state, found in crocodiles, sauropods and early theropods, is a pubis pointing forward. A backward-pointing pubis evolved at least twice independently, both in more advanced theropods (such as birds) and the ornithischian dinosaurus. But could we be so certain that Tyrannosaurus and Diplodocus are more closely related to each other (forming a clade Saurischia) just because of their hips? Afterall, this is a primitive hip, so it is very unlikely to be a synapomorphy (a shared derived character). Nevertheless, it continued to be used as a character uniting sauropods and theropods.

A new paper published by Nature this week, however, showed new evidences that point to a different relationship of the groups. After a detailed analysis of the bone anatomy, Matthew G. Baron, David B. Norman and Paul M. Barrett have found 20 characters that unite theropods with ornithischians and not with sauropods. Among those we can mention the presence of a foramen (a hole) at the anterior region of the premaxillary bone that is inside the narial fossa (the depression of the bone that surrounds the nostril’s opening) and a sharp longitudinal ridge along the maxilla.


The skulls of both ornithischians and theropods (above) show an anterior premaxillary foramen in the narial fossa (shown in yellow) and and a sharp ridge on the maxilla (shown in green), as well as other characters that are not present in sauropodomorphs and herrerasaurids (below). Composition using original pictures by Carol Abraczinskas and Paul C. Sereno (Heterodontosaurus), Wikimedia user Ghedoghedo (Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus), and flickr user philosophygeek (Plateosaurus).**

In his blog Tetrapod Zoology, Dr. Darren Naish comments the new classification and points out some problems that arise with this new view. One of them is the fact that both theropods and sauropodomorphs have pneumatic (hollow) bones, while ornithischians do not. If the new phylogeny is closer to the truth, that means that pneumacity evolved twice independently or evolved once and was lost in ornithischians.

He also mentions that both ornithischians and theropods had hair-like or quill-like structures on their skin. In theropods this eventually led to feathers. Could this be another synapomorphy uniting these groups? Maybe… but when we think that pterosaurs also had “hairs”, one could also conclude that a “hairy” integumentary structure was already presented in the common ancestor of dinosaurus. In this case, perhaps, we only had not found it yet on sauropods. Now imagine a giant Argentinosaurus covered with feathers!

One concern that appeared with this new organization is whether sauropodomorphs would still be considered dinosaurs. The term “dinosaur” was coined by Richard Owen in 1842 to refer to the remains of the three genera known at the time, Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus and Megalosaurus, the first two being ornithischians and the latter a theropod. As a consequence, the original definition of dinosaur did not include sauropods. Similarly, the modern phylogenetic definition of dinosaur was “the least inclusive clade containing Passer domesticus (the house sparrow) and Triceratops horridus“. In order to allow Brachiosaurus and his friends to continue sitting  with the dinosaurs, Baron et al. suggested to expand the definition to include Diplodocus carnegii. So, dinosaurus would be the least inclusive clade containing P. domesticusT. horridus and D. carnegii.

In this new family tree, the name Saurischia would still be used, but to refer only to the sauropodomorphs and some primitive carnivores, the herrerasaurids. The new clade formed by uniting theropods and ornithischians was proposed to be called Ornithoscelida (“bird-legged”), a name coined in 1870 to refer to the bird-like hindlimbs of both theropods and ornithopods (the subgroup of ornithischians that includes dinosaurs such as Iguanodon and the duck-billed dinosaurs).

What can we conclude with all that? Nothing will change if you are just a dinosaur enthusiast and do not care about what’s an ornithischian and a saurischian. Now if you are a phylogeny fan, as I am, you are used to sudden changes in the branches. Most fossils of basal dinosaurs are incomplete, thus increasing the problem to know how they are related to each other. Perhaps this new view will last, perhaps new evidence will change all over again the next week.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences and further reading:

Baron, M., Norman, D., & Barrett, P. (2017). A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution Nature, 543 (7646), 501-506 DOI: 10.1038/nature21700

Naish, D. (2017). Ornithoscelida Rises: A New Family Tree for DinosaursTetrapod Zoology.

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*Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

**Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Filed under Evolution, Extinction, Paleontology, Systematics

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