Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Moenkopi and Lykins: The Mid-Triassic in Western North America

In this post, we continue with out exploration of the Mid-Triassic, 240 MYA.  In this post, we look at the Moenkopi and Lykins Formations of North America, and see what they can tell us about this ancient time.  We also delve a bit into the evolution of fin-backs and sails as display structures, like you can see in the picture below.

In the Moenkopi Formation of North America, we can gain a more complete understanding of the terrestrial fauna of this time period.  We already discussed the rauisuchian Ticinosuchus and the protorosaur Macrocnemus from Monte San Giorgio, as well as the large temnospondyl amphibian Eocyclotosaurus from Grès à Voltzia, but there were lots of other very exciting animals alive back then as well.  Arizonasaurus, a poposaurid archosaur, was likely one of the top predators, and had a back adorned by a Spinosaurus-like sail, similar to the sail seen in the more primitive German archosaur Ctenosauriscus.

We talked about the poposaurs in a recent post which you can read by clicking HERE.  The poposaurs, as well as the rauisuchians, were both members of a large group that many scientists refer to as "pseudosuchians."  These animals were crocodilian in nature, and fairly closely related to them.  But some pseudosuchians, including some rauisuchians and poposaurs, actually evolved a body design similar to some types of dinosaurs, where they could walk on either two or four feet.

Let's jump back to the sails on the back of Arizonasaurus, Ctenosauriscus, and Spinosaurus.  The first two are fairly closely related to each other, but Spinosaurus is not closely related at all, separated by around 150 MY of geologic time.  The question is, why would these animals have convergently evolved these sails on their backs?  The orthodox answer is that the sails help the animal thermoregulate, that by turning the sail towards or away from the sun, it would help the animal warm up or cool off.  Similar ideas have been proposed for other animals that feature similar anatomical structures, such as Stegosaurus with its double row of plates down its back, or the primitive synapsids Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus.
A model of a juvenile Stegosaurus from the Morrison Natural History Museum.  Other stegosaurs that are very closely related, such as Kentrosaurus and Wuerhosaurus, have very different shaped plates, and a different amount of plates, as well.
This idea has some major flaws, however, as argued by paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker in his excellent and influential book "The Dinosaur Heresies."  In the book, Bakker points out that very close relatives of these sail-animals don't have these strange fins on their back.  If the thermoregulation theory is accepted, then that would suggest that these very closely related animals had very different thermoregulatory needs.  For example, Bakker points out that the primitive synapsids Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon are very closely related to each other, and most of their anatomy is very similar, other than the fact that Dimetrodon has that enormous sail on its back, and Sphenacodon has only a very slight elongation of its vertebrae.  If we accept the thermoregulatory hypothesis at face value, it would imply that, despite being very similar in anatomy and lifestyle, for whatever reason Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon had drastically different thermoregulatory needs.  Below, we have a chart showing a sail-back on the left with a closely related animal on the right, this one lacking a sail.

So what do we propose instead?  Most likely a means of attracting a mate.  In animals today, it is display structures and behavior pertaining to courtship that changes the most.  An excellent example of this is the birds of paradise from New Guinea, which we discussed in greater depth in a post with a similar focus, in regards to the plates of Stegosaurus, which you can read HERE.

Sharks, such as the very strange-looking Hybodus, have also been discovered in the Moenkopi Formation.

Where I live in Colorado, the Lykins Formation is approximately contemporaneous with the Moenkopi Formation.  The Lykins Formation isn't the most exciting of Colorado's geologic formations (at least not for people interested in fossils or excitement), but stromatolites can be found in some areas of the formation.  Stromatolites are layers of wavy and convoluted cyanobacteria that sometimes form in areas of shallow water.  Cyanobacteria by themselves aren't very big, as they are simply single-celled photosynthetic bacteria.  However, together, the gelatinous secretions they produce is enough to trap the sediment that settles out of the water, forming visible laminations that sometimes fossilize.

Stromatolites were much more common prior to the Cambrian Explosion approximately 500 MYA, as back then there wasn't really anything that could eat it.  Believe it or not, layers of cyanobacteria are notoriously bad at running away from herbivores, even something as slow as a snail or a slug.  Today, stromatolites are relatively rare, especially considering their past abundance, but you can still find them in isolated areas like Shark Bay, Australia, and Lake Salda in Turkey.  Most stromatolites form in areas that discourage herbivore grazing.  Shark Bay and Lake Salda are both hypersaline areas, places where most herbivores simply don't want to go (especially slugs and snails).  More recently, stromatolite-like growths were found living in an abandoned asbestos mine in Yukon, Canada.  This indicates to us that the parts of the Lykins Formation in which the stromatolites are found were likely not conducive to supporting herbivores, perhaps also due to hypersaline conditions.

Join us soon for our next post, in which we look at ancestors of both dinosaurs and mammals that were alive during this time!  We will also do a little investigating into different types of dentition, so stay tuned!

Works Cited:

Bakker, R. T. (1986). The dinosaur heresies: new theories unlocking the mystery of the dinosaurs and their extinction. New York: Morrow.

Bottjer, D. J. (2002). Exceptional Fossil Preservation: A Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Braithwaite, C. J., & Zedef, V. Hydromagnesite Stromatolites and Sediments in an Alkaline Lake, Salda Golu, Turkey. Journal of Sedimentary Research, 66. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://jsedres.geoscienceworld.org/content/66/5/991.abstract

Carroll, R. L. (1988). Vertebrate paleontology and evolution. New York, N.Y.: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Fiorelli, Lucas E., Martín D. Ezcurra, E. Martín Hechenleitner, Eloisa Argañaraz, Jeremías R. A. Taborda, M. Jimena Trotteyn, M. Belén Von Baczko, and Julia B. Desojo. The oldest known communal latrines provide evidence of gregarism in Triassic megaherbivores. Scientific Reports. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131128/srep03348/full/srep03348.html#ref8

Hammer, WR., 1990: Thrinaxodon from Graphite Peak, central Transantarctic Mountains, Antarctica. Antarctic Journal of the United States, 255: 37-38

Lautenschlager, S., & Desojo, J. B. Reassessment of the Middle Triassic Rauisuchian Archosaurs Ticinosuchus ferox and Stagonosuchus nyassicus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/225706328_Reassessment_of_the_Middle_Triassic_rauisuchian_archosaurs_Ticinosuchus_ferox_and_Stagonosuchus_nyassicus

Mickelson, D. L. (2014, June 6). Triassic Tracks in the Moenkopi Formation. National Parks Service. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/triassictrack.htm

Morales, M. Terrestrial Fauna and Flora from the Triassic Moenkopi Formation of the Southwestern United States. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science, 22. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40024380?uid=3739568&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104182410797

Nesbitt, S. J. Arizonasaurus and Its Implications for Archosaur Divergence. Biological Sciences, 270. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/270/Suppl_2/S234.abstract

Nesbitt, S. J. Osteology of the Middle Triassic Pseudosuchian Archosaur Arizonasaurus babbitti. Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology, 17. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08912960500476499#.U6Ti2ZRdV1-

Nesbitt, S. J., Barrett, P. M., Werning, S., Sidor, C. A., & Charig, A. J. The Oldest Dinosaur? A Middle Triassic Dinosauriform from Tanzania. Biology Letters, 9. Retrieved June 20, 2014, from http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/9/1/20120949.abstract

Owen, D., & Pemberton, D. (2005). Tasmanian devil: a unique and threatened animal. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Power, I. M., S. A. Wilson, G. M. Dipple, and G. Southam. Modern carbonate microbialites from an asbestos open pit pond, Yukon, Canada. Geobiology, 9. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1472-4669.2010.00265.x/abstract

Reptiles. (n.d.). Monte San Giorgio. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://www.montesangiorgio.org/en/Monte-San-Giorgio/I-fossili/I-rettili.html

Switek, B. (2008, April 1). Heterodonty where you least expect it. Laelaps. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/2008/04/01/heterodont-archosaurs/

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